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.
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
This 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
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)
Working 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
After 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 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)
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
With 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
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
We 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
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
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
And 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?
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.20!
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!
Today, 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]
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.
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.”
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…)
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.
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.
For 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.
After 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.
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.19!
This release we’ve been working on making Alaveteli easier to install.
- We’ve overhauled the manual install guide to be much more comprehensive.
- The email setup guide has updated instructions for Exim and Postfix, and adds some extra troubleshooting tips.
- We’ve improved the generators for some of the config files and added more – and better – examples for ones we can’t generate yet.
- Developers can now pick one of the supported operating systems to use for their Vagrant VM.
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
- 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 (
- 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!
Our next meet-up, on 3rd September, will focus on Freedom of Information (FOI). We really care about FOI at mySociety, which is why we created the FOI request filer WhatDoTheyKnow for UK citizens back in 2008, and Alaveteli thereafter for international use.
So, we thought, why not host a meet-up to discuss FOI technologies, research and legislation in the UK and beyond?
We’re delighted to be joined at this meet-up by the following guest speakers:-
Maurice Frankel: Maurice is director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information. He has worked with them since it was set up in 1984, and has been its director since 1987.
Maurice will talk about the possible government restrictions on the right of access to information in the UK; the problems caused by the Freedom of Information Act’s poor approach to public service contracts and the surprising limitations which the courts have imposed on the ministerial veto.
Marietta Le: Marietta is from the Hungarian investigative journalism NGO Atlatszo.
Atlatzso is a watchdog NGO and online news site for investigative journalism to promote transparency and freedom of information (FOI) in Hungary. They run various websites including KiMitTud, a freedom of information request generator for the general public, which runs using the Alaveteli platform.
KiMitTud was launched in May 2012 and has helped people send nearly 3000 freedom of information requests so far. Atlatszo’s investigative journalists have been using it as a tool to dig up new stories and obtain important evidence in corruption cases. However, the success of Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act has led to the Hungarian government introducing a restrictive amendment to the law; a measure that is being challenged at the moment by a joint initiative of media outlets and transparency NGOs.
Marietta will join us to speak about setting up an FOI site in Hungary using Alaveteli and the current threats to freedom of information in Hungary, following the recent restrictive amendment to the FOI law.
Savita Bailur and Tom Longley: 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?”
To address this, researchers Savita and Tom have focused on three areas: a literature review to see what research is already out there, in-depth interviews with people who have installed FOI technologies in many different countries, and the compilation of a list of critical success factors. Read more about their research here.
Savita and Tom are more than halfway through their research, and we’re delighted that they’ll present their preliminary findings at this meet-up.
We’ll also discuss the latest developments on WhatDoTheyKnow, and Alaveteli developers (as well as other mySociety team members) will be around to answer any questions.
There’ll be plenty of pizza and beer to go around too, so what could be better?
Hope to see you there!
To see where we’ll be holding our next meet-ups over the coming months, check out our page on Lanyrd.
Photo by Paul Keller (CC)
This week, we received a request to add a new authority to WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information site. Where appropriate, we are happy to do that, although it’s not always possible.
And this time, it really was not possible: the nomination was for the Klingon High Council.
On the face of it, one might think the High Council an ideal candidate for Freedom of Information requests – wouldn’t we all like to hold it to account for its long history of war, assassinations, and political intrigue – not to mention its miserable record on equality for female Klingons?
Sadly, the WhatDoTheyKnow team had to point out to our user that Do’Ha’ ‘oHbe’ yejquv subject to tuqjIjQa’ chut – which, as any native Klingon speaker will tell you, translates as: “Unfortunately, the Council is not subject to the laws of the United Kingdom”. That’s a pre-requisite for any authority that we include on the site.
On the other hand, of course, any Klingon who is interested in setting up an FOI site for their empire may wish to have a look at our Alaveteli platform.
Requesting new public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow
You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to contact any public authority that we have details for.
If you want to make an FOI request to an authority that is not on the site, you can request it. We do our best to include any authority that is bound by the Freedom of Information Act (and some that are not) – but they are all UK bodies, subject to UK law.
Ideally, they should also be non-fictional, and located in the present rather than the far-distant future.
We’re always busy at mySociety. Running projects in the UK, and helping international partners get started on their own projects – it takes time and energy. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the day-to-day logistics and never take a step back.
But it’s important to make sure that our projects are actually having positive impacts. To that end, we’ve instigated a number of research projects – and you may have seen our recent ad for a Head of Research, now happily filled and coming on board soon.
One piece of research very near completion involves a review of FOI online technologies around the world, including our Alaveteli platform.
Researchers Savita Bailur and Tom Longley have focused on three areas: a literature review to see what research is already out there, in-depth interviews with people who have installed FOI technologies in many different countries, and the compilation of a list of critical success factors. You can read more about them, and their approach in their introduction over on the Alaveteli blog.
We’ll be publishing their final report in full as soon as it’s ready, but here’s an interim update from Savita.
We’re more than half way through the research on the impact of technologies on FOI around the world.
A literature review of the publications we have found on impact of FOI technologies is now in draft form, and we will share that soon.
The practitioner review is coming along. So far we’ve spoken to people who run Alaveteli installations in the European Union, Australia, Bosnia, Canada, Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kosovo, Liberia, Macedonia, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine and Uruguay.
We’ve also spoken to non-Alaveteli FOI site implementers such as Acceso Inteligente in Chile, MuckRock and IFOIA in the USA, Open Data Georgia, and FragdenStaat in Germany.
Thanks to all of you who kindly gave your time so far – there’s certainly a lot happening out there and some very inspiring, dedicated people! We still have a few more people to talk to, but thought we’d give a quick progress report on findings so far:
- FOI websites are definitely making the process of FOI requests much easier. They help citizens and journalists organise their requests. In publishing all exchanges, they make FOI requests more useful for other people who might be searching for similar information.
- However, the concept is still new – it’s even seen as exotic and possibly rather rude in places where email is regarded as an informal form of communication – so the first step seems to be public (and government) awareness raising. Without it, there is a risk of “transparency theatre” as one respondent delicately put it.
- Users vary (everyday “citizen” users and/or activists) but very few sites have much demographic information about their users.
- One common finding from Australia to Canada and in-between is that the use by journalists of Alaveteli is not as extensive as expected, because it takes too long and they fear losing the competitive scoop (as all exchanges are publicly available immediately)
- Implementers of FOI sites are mostly funded solely by grants, in-kind contributions or not at all. Some are managing to make a living from running FOI sites. Passion and dedication is a very common theme across all sites!
- By and large, obstacles to realising effective FOI exist everywhere. There is evidence that governments are unfamiliar with FOI (e.g. Tunisia), can be obstructive (e.g. Canada or more specifically the Quebec site, where online FOI requests were originally considered invalid because they were not “in writing”) or openly unwelcoming (e.g. Germany, where a copyright law prohibits sharing of FOI information, or Hungary, where civil society organizations working on FOI have faced intimidation).
- Hunting down the email addresses of who to contact in public institutions in the first place is one of the most challenging tasks an implementer can face (e.g. Uruguay). Many aren’t published, are inactive, personal emails or simply respond with “quota full” messages. Conversely, some government officials have started asking for their email to be included in the FOI site.
- Some “vexatious” or facetious requests actually raise the profile of FOI, e.g. a New Zealand request asking if the prime minster was a “shapeshifting reptilian alien” created great publicity for the site
- In Australia, RightToKnow used FOI to find out what a government ministry thought about the RightToKnow site itself. If you can find more of these examples, please get in touch.
- FOI implementers face difficult decisions of whether to collaborate with (e.g. Uganda and Canada) or confront (e.g. Spain) government.
- Alaveteli implementers consider the Alaveteli support community one of the most valuable aspects of the software and there is often a regional/cultural assistance, e.g. Spain’s Tuderechoasaber assisting Guatemala in starting Guateinformada, or Uganda working with neighbours. However, the code needs to be more customisable.
- Sustainability is still an issue. This is particularly the case for implementers in “developed” countries who may find fundraising for FOI work more challenging than in countries where donors are investing heavily in transparency and accountability (e.g. World Bank in Uganda).
… and there are many more interesting findings to follow!
All the interviews are now being transcribed (the interviewees having agreed to being recorded) and we are analysing them through themes in qualitative software.
We have more interviews over the next fortnight. The literature review, report of findings and brief strategy document will be out in September – stay tuned.