Outside of her work for mySociety, our very own marketing and communications manager Myf somehow finds time to illustrate and sketch. She runs a popular personal blog (Myf Draws Apparently) which often includes sketch diaries of her adventures. The most recent one she’s just published is a lovely record of a trip to Madrid earlier this year.
Only, it wasn’t just a trip to Madrid — she was there as part of the mySociety team at AlaveteliCon 2015.
Alaveteli is mySociety’s Freedom of Information (FoI) platform, and AlaveteliCon was the second conference we’ve held on Freedom of Information technologies. It brings together people from all over the world who are involved in running sites like the UK’s WhatDoTheyKnow.
One of the pages Myf drew is this wonderful flow diagram of the way platforms like Alaveteli actually experience Freedom of Information.
Not everyone at the conference was running an Alaveteli-based site, which was sort of the point: the business of running FoI sites like these is not about the technology, it’s about the culture of citizens’ Right to Know. There’s a lot of variety in the FoI laws around the world, and they are regarded with wildly differing levels of enthusiasm by the authorities who ought to be bound by them. The groups running FoI sites invariably consist of individuals who are passionate and articulate on all aspects of Freedom of Information. At the conference, they shared tales of frustration in the face of intransigent or occasionally devious public authorities; anecdotes demonstrating beatific levels of patience in the face of obdurate official departments; and, of course, some wonderful stories of success.
Myf has captured some of this in her sketch diary. Although she didn’t create it for mySociety, some of us think that flow chart is too delightful and too relevant not to share here.
To see all of Myf’s Madrid diary (it’s in five parts), start at part one.
Earlier this year, the AlaveteliCon conference brought together people with an interest in online Freedom of Information technologies.
It was an event quite unlike any other, and left a lasting impression of many dedicated people making good things happen for their communities, in places across the world.
That impression is reflected in these short videos, which came about when we yanked attendees away from their lunches and asked them questions in a darkened room.
Thanks very much to everyone who responded so amiably, as well as giving us such useful insights into what it’s like to run an FOI site in all sorts of circumstances. We’ve named them at the foot of this post, along with links to their sites.
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22!
Luke Bacon improved the design and accessibility of the search form.
Code quality came top of the list at AlaveteliCon 2015. This release includes contributions from James McKinney, Henare Degan, Caleb Tutty, Petter Reinholdtsen and Gorm Eriksen – all helping to clean up code, make Alaveteli work even better and make it easier to translate.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s Public Authority pages were suffering, so we took a dive in to the code around this area. Improving it had a huge impact on the page we were looking at and should have benefits across the application.
Maintenance & Security
When enabled, each request has a “Create a widget for this request” action available in the sidebar.
Any visitor can copy the iframe embed code to paste on their own website.
Waving Goodbye to the Past
You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed.
Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.
Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.
As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.
Not just a pretty face
It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.
They’ll be checking that we’ve:
- Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
- Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
- Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.
That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.
Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.
Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:
It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.
Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:
It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”
How it works
The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:
Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.
For those who prefer to browse
Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:
They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.
Sharing the benefits
Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.
Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.
The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.
We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.
Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.
Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.
If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.
Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:
- A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
- Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
- Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
- Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
- Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
- The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.
Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:
- Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
- Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
- Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
- Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
- In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
- In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
- Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
- …Other ideas? Let the Alaveteli mailing list know.
And some solutions we don’t recommend:
While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.
Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.
It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.
In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.
In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.
Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.
This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:
In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.
In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.
If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.
Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.
If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.
Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.
While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.
Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.
Official government sites
We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.
One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.
For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.
But! Together we’re stronger
Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.
If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!
No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.
It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.
The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.
1. Make FOI concrete
Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.
Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’
You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.
2. Use SEO to your advantage
Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.
The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.
A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.
Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?
3. Make passive users into active users
The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?
One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.
Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.
Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.
If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.
4. Contextualise FOI
In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.
Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.
You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.
5. Create a community
Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.
Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.
A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.
6. Write about interesting requests
Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.
There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:
- Is the New Zealand Prime Minister actually a shape-shifting reptile?
- A series of requests about the zombie apocalypse
In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.
Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.
A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.
As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.
7. Conduct outreach
NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.
Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.
However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.
8. Paid ads
Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.
Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.
mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.
9. Friends in high places
Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.
Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.
For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.
10. Create your own buzz
The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous requests made in the previous year.
This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.
Now go and do it
So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!
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.
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.
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:
— Alaveteli (@alaveteli_foi) May 19, 2015
We can share the strategies that have worked in other places. When you have problems let the community know #Alaveteli15
— Alaveteli (@alaveteli_foi) May 19, 2015
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.
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!
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.21!
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.