1. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 1

    There are now Freedom of Information websites running on our Alaveteli software in 25 jurisdictions worldwide, which between them have processed more than 330,000 FOI requests.

    But what sort of information is being revealed through these sites? And what impact has this information had? In our new series of posts, we’ll be giving you a roundup of some of the most interesting and impactful requests made on Alaveteli sites from across the world.

    To kick off, here are the stories of two interesting requests; one from Australia’s Alaveteli site RightToKnow and one from Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy: (more…)

  2. Inform yourself before the referendum

    If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.

    On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.

    We believe in an informed vote.

    That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.

    Check the facts

    Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.

    They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.

    Ask some questions

    Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.

    But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.

    You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask for information from UK authorities, and AskTheEU for EU bodies — AskTheEU is a site run on our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.

    Know where to vote

    Democracy Club are the stalwart crew of volunteers who crowdsourced details of all candidates before the UK general election and again before the recent local elections.

    Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.

    Image: Eisenrah (CC)

     

  3. Dostup do Pravdy: the secret of FOI success

    Last week, Ukrainian Freedom of Information site Dostup do Pravdy processed its 10,000th FOI request.

    That’s pretty impressive, given that they launched just a couple of years ago, in 2014.

    We offer hearty congratulations to the Dostup do Pravdy team. We’re also looking very closely at how they achieved this level of usage, because the site runs on our Alaveteli platform — and we’re keen to share the secrets of their success with the rest of the Alaveteli community.

    So we called Yaroslav, one of the team, and asked him to outline the various factors that have helped boost the site’s popularity. We’ll be writing this up in more detail as part of a guide to marketing Alaveteli sites, but for now, here are the headline points.

    Link with a news outlet

    Dostup do Pravdy was set up in collaboration with Ukraine’s biggest online news outlet, and from the beginning they have employed a journalist to work solely on stories generated through Freedom of Information.

    This has given them several great advantages: a ready-made audience for their most interesting requests; a channel through which to ensure that the general population knows about their rights in FOI; and professional expertise in pulling out which information was the most newsworthy.

    Troubled times

    Of course, no-one would choose to live through political upheaval, but there’s no doubt that Ukraine’s recent history made the populace all the more keen to access facts.

    FOI proved a crucial tool in uncovering and publicising stories of corruption, such as the diversion of funds meant for the army, when high-up officials were coincidentally seen driving top-of-the-range BMWs.

    Stories that grab the public’s imagination

    Right now, Dostup do Pravdy are working on a campaign to find the owners of historic buildings which are falling into disrepair, a story which has captured the attention of the wider community.

    Similarly, they’ve probed into figures on domestic violence cases, a story which got picked up by all the national media.

    On the road

    Ukraine is a relatively big country, with some regions where internet access is poor. The Dostup do Pravdy team are partway through a series of 15 grant-funded ‘roadshows’ in which they invite local activists to come and learn more about Freedom of Information, and train them in how to make requests.

    These activists also help to spread the word amongst the wider community and local media. Where there is no access to the internet, they revert to the lower-tech FOI channels of phone and written letter.

    The visits are also an opportunity to meet with officers from public authorities — the people on the receiving end of the FOI requests.

    Employ an intern

    There’s always more work than there is time to do it, when you’re a small team trying to make a big difference. Dostup do Pravdy were only able to find all the details they needed for their historic buildings project by employing an intern who could go through all the various registers to find crucial information.

    Use social media

    Dostup do Pravdy have seen great increases in visits to their site, both in terms of people browsing information, and those who go on to make an FOI request.

    Alaveteli does allow for a certain amount of discussion of requests, via its annotations functionality, but Dostup do Pravdy also have almost 10,000 followers on Facebook, and it’s here that they’ve seen discussion flourish. It’s also a great platform for sharing their investigative stories, and publicising their events.

    Users also come to Facebook to ask for assistance in making their requests, or following up those that have gone unanswered. Administrators encourage users to keep pushing for the information they require, and can point out where authorities are in breach of law, or point them in the right direction to get further help from the Institute of Media law, who can offer legal aid and advice.

     

    So there you are: that’s the combination of factors that have led to success for Dostup do Pravdy. We wish them all the best as they charge towards their next milestone. Будьмо!

     

    Image: Juanedc.com (CC)

  4. New grant, new commercial services

    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 hello@mysociety.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.

  5. Alaveteli Release 0.24

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.24! Here are some of the highlights.

    Admin Tools

    We’ve added better management for censor rules in the admin interface. Previously, only request and user censor rules could be managed; now you can manage rules for authorities and global rules that get applied to everything.

    Censor rules management

    We’ve added support deleting incoming messages in bulk on a request page. This is useful if you’re experiencing spam to the holding pen. You can zap them all in a couple of clicks.

    Deleting incoming spam in bulk

    Design

    Facebook is a big driver of traffic to Alavetelis. We’ve added support for a specific opengraph image for pages when shared on Facebook. You’ll need to add a custom version for your site in your theme. Take a look at the upgrade notes for more info.

    Alaveteli OpenGraph Logo

    As Zarino has already mentioned, we’ve improved handling of long translations in the banner.

    Handling long translations

    Long Term Support

    Alaveteli 0.24 adds support for the most current versions of Debian and Ruby. Jessie has security support until May 2018 and Long Term Support until May 2020.

    The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

  6. Designing for wordy languages at mySociety

    When someone uses mySociety software to report a street problem, or make a Freedom of Information request, it’s often in a language other than English, because our code is used to power sites all over the world.

    That’s fine: we include a facility for people to add translations to the sites they deploy, so, job done, right?

    Except, unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. However much we complain about the idiosyncrasies of our language, there’s one thing English has got going for it, and that’s conciseness. And that means that words and phrases which fit quite nicely into our designs suddenly become problematic.

    A recent front-end design ticket in Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform, centred around improving the display of various standard elements (the navigation bar, language switcher, logged-in user links) when the Alaveteli site in question is displaying in a language other than English.

    Here’s a picture which shows exactly why that was an issue:

    messy-alaveteli-headerIt was enough to make a designer sob.

    To put it bluntly: As soon as those carefully-crafted navigation bar links get translated, all bets are off as to whether they’ll continue to fit in the space provided. It’s an issue that’s faced by anyone creating software designed for international reuse.

    So I figured I’d share a few things the mySociety design team has learned about internationalisation, and one quick trick that I recently started using to test international language lengths on our own websites.

    The problem

    Not only are some languages more verbose than others (ie: they use more words to convey the same concept), but many use more characters per word.

    Then there are other languages which use fewer—but more complex—characters that need to be displayed larger to still remain legible.

    The W3C (which sets standards for the web) suggests that front-end developers can expect the following ratio of increase/decrease in visual text width when translating from English into this handful of common languages:

    Language Translation Ratio
    Korean 조회 0.8
    English views 1
    Chinese 次檢視 1.2
    Portuguese visualizações 2.6
    French consultations 2.6
    German -mal angesehen 2.8
    Italian visualizzazioni 3

    That’s a 150–200% increase in space required to display words in the European / South American languages that we deal with quite a lot here at mySociety.

    Often, you’re lucky, and the layout includes enough space to absorb the extra words. Headings and paragraphs of text are really good at this. Indeed, as the amount of text to be translated gets bigger, you notice that the translation has less effect on space, as the W3C, again, notes:

    No. of characters in English source Average expansion
    Up to 10 characters 200–300%
    11–20 characters 180–200%
    21–30 characters 160–180%
    31–50 characters 140–160%
    51–70 characters 151-170%
    Over 70 characters 130%

    So—no need to worry—it’s just short little bits of text that hurt the most. Phew.

    Hang on, short little bits of text… like all those buttons and links all over every single website mySociety makes?

    romg

    Don’t panic!

    That’s what mySociety has designers for :-)

    There are lots of tricks we can use to reinforce our layouts to better handle long strings. For instance, where possible, we avoid creating horizontally-constrained navigation bars.

    And in some cases, we can use modern styling techniques like Flexbox to better handle overflowing text without harming legibility or the overall layout of the page.

    But testing the effectiveness of these techniques can take time and, while we have a fantastic network of volunteers and international partners who translate our open source projects, we’re often working on the initial layout and styling before that has a chance to happen.

    While I was working out fixes for the Alaveteli user links and language picker dropdown, I threw together a quick “pseudolocalize” function that temporarily makes the text longer, so we could preview how it’ll look once it gets translated.

    pseudolocalization-code-snippet

    Only later did I discover that “Pseudolocalization” is, apparently, a real thing, originating from the Windows developer community.

    Typically existing Pseudolocalization functions would do all sorts of orthographic substitutions to test how weird characters are displayed, as well as padding the strings to make them longer. So, something like Account Settings would be transformed into [!!! Àççôûñţ Šéţţîñĝš !!!].

    My little function skips the weird character substitutions, and instead just doubles the text content of any elements you tell it to.

    So you can run…

    pseudolocalize('.navigation a')

    …in your browser console, to turn this…

    before

    …into this!

    after

    Yep, it’s useful and it’s ridiculous — our favourite combination.

    Plus, it’s super fast, and it works with nested elements, so if you were totally crazy, you could just run it on the entire 'body' and be done with it!

    pseudolocalize('body')
    psuedolocalized

    Now, we’re not saying we’ll be able to cope with, say, the longest word in Sanskrit, which is 431 letters long, but this approach does make us pretty confident that we’ve got a great basis for whatever most languages can throw at us.

    If you’re a web developer with similarly ingenious tricks for improving the internationalization of your sites, share them in the comments box!

    Photo of Nepalese prayer wheels by Greg WillisCC BY-SA 2.0

  7. Launching infoLib Liberia: optimism and hard work

    On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.

    The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.

    The platform, jointly build by iLab Liberia and mySociety, is Liberia’s first step in streamlining the process of making a freedom of information request.

    The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.

    Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.

    The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.

    So what’s next?

    Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.

    In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.

    Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.

    In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.

    Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.

    Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.

  8. A new look for AsktheEU.org

    Back last year, we told you about WhatDoTheyKnow’s fancy new redesign, as part of our rolling process of design improvements.

    WhatDoTheyKnow is powered by Alaveteli, the freedom of information software that also underlies 25 other FOI request platforms around the world. A great benefit of this global usage is that when we make improvements to one site, we can make them available for everyone else, too.

    So, using what we developed and learned from the WhatDoTheyKnow redesign, we added the updated look and feel to the latest version of Alaveteli.

    Now any Alaveteli install that upgrades to the latest version can also have a fancy new look!
    And that’s what AsktheEU.org has done. And doesn’t it look great?

    AsktheEU.org is an Alaveteli instance, run by Access Info Europe, which allows citizens to request information from the European Union. So if you need to escalate your request to an EU body and your country’s part of the EU, you should give AsktheEU.org a go.

    Mobile responsive

    A major improvement is that the site is now mobile responsive – so viewing it using a handheld device is ‘a total breath of fresh air’ (to use the words of mySociety designer Zarino!).The site was originally built with the assumption that most users would be on their desktop machines — which was true when it first launched, but certainly isn’t any more. Mobile users make up about 50% of the traffic these days, so this will make it much easier for them.

    These changes also mean that users with visual impairments (or simply those who prefer bigger text on their web pages) can zoom in using their browser’s zoom controls, and use the new site perfectly comfortably, with no degradation in experience.

    Lighter, faster pages

    The new site is now much quicker to load, which should help those on poor connections or mobile devices.The designers achieved this by cutting down the number of files in the pages’ styling.

    Space to breathe

    The new request pages are now also more modern looking, with increased white space and improved contrast and type hierarchy, which should make them easier to quickly scan and find what you’re looking for.

    The base font size has also been increased, making text, especially on the Help and About pages, much easier to read. And links now have underlines, to better distinguish them for users with trouble seeing changes in colour.

    Well done to the Access Info and mySociety teams for making these improvements!

    We’re hoping that, all together, they will make the site more accessible and therefore attract more visitors, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the impact of the new design and will report back.

    There’s a secret message here for anyone running an Alaveteli site: if you’d like your site to benefit from all the improvements above, upgrade to Alaveteli 0.23. There are also loads of other benefits to upgrading, which you can check out here.

    Please do get in touch if you’d like our support to upgrade, we’re here to help!

  9. An online Freedom of Information service – for offline users

    Next time you sit down at your computer to find out some information, remember that things aren’t quite so simple everywhere.

    A new Freedom of Information website launches in Liberia today, hoping for success despite the fact that many in the country have little or no access to the internet. If the idea of running an email-based requesting system under such circumstances sounds slightly ambitious, read on to see just how iLab Liberia will make it work, in collaboration with the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition, and funded by the Making All Voices Count project.

    The Liberia Freedom of Information Request Platform – InfoLib – is the latest site to use our Alaveteli software. Like all Alaveteli sites, it will send requests for information to public authorities by email, while publishing both the requests and the responses online. In time, responses build into a public archive of information.

    Online services, offline

    So how do you run a site like this in a country with low internet penetration? With a little ingenuity and a knowledge of which effective networks already exist, it seems.

    The project will make use of an existing network of regional offices and training centres, set up by the Carter Centre and LFIC. In these hubs, staff have been trained up to submit and receive requests on behalf of citizens, and citizens have attended workshops on how FOI can benefit them. There’s no need for users to have access to a computer, or an understanding of how to use a website — there will be staff who can do it on their behalf.

    And they’ve also spent time training the Public Information Officers, or PIOs, on the use of technology to make responding to requests easier. iLab are also providing a similar service within Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where they already run successful computer and ICT training programmes for interested citizens.

    We’ve seen this offline-to-online approach with other projects. At the AlaveteliCon conference we heard from people running Alaveteli sites in Rwanda and Uganda, also areas with low internet access, and we’ve experimented in the past with a similar system to allow people to make FixMyStreet reports via SMS texts to a central office.

    Radio outreach

    In Liberia, almost everyone has access to a radio. Community radio stations are a part of daily life, and the main source of news for many.

    iLab Liberia will be putting out regular radio segments, explaining what FOI is and how you can use your rights under Liberian law to access information. They’ll also highlight the most interesting information that’s been released through the site. This approach should see FOI become an increasingly familiar topic, a right that everyone understands and knows that they have access to.

    We wish InfoLib the best of luck — and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how these initiatives work out.

     

    Image: Cameron Zohoori (CC)

     

  10. Alaveteli Release 0.23

    Earlier this week, we released Alaveteli 0.23, the latest version of our Freedom of Information software for usage anywhere in the world.

    This is another big release with lots of general improvements.

    Design

    Martin Wright, one of our enterprising designers, has been hard at work giving Alaveteli a new default homepage which explains how the site works. He’s also been improving the HTML to make the site easier to customise without needing to be a CSS guru.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.07.41

    Bugfixes

    Liz Conlan has joined the Alaveteli team, and we have been hazing welcoming her by getting her to tackle some of the annoying little bugs that have been around for a long time – so the site should now be smoother to use and more of a joy for admins to run. Petter Reinholdtsen also chipped in here with better handling of the graphs that show how much new installs are being used.

    Code Quality

    We’ve continued to refactor the code for simplicity, clarity and extensibility. We plan for Alaveteli to be around for many years to come – that means it needs to be easy for new developers to understand what it does, and why (nerd alert, our Code Climate score continues to inch its way up and test coverage is now over 90%). This isn’t glamorous work, but it is an important investment in the future of the code that mySociety developers are lucky enough to be in a position to consider. Its not just us though – Caleb Tutty and James McKinney both contributed substantial code refactorings to this release.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.14.43

    Localisation

    We’ve also been working to improve the process of translating Alaveteli into a new language – standardising the way phrases for translation appear to translators, and, thanks to Gareth Rees introducing support for language-specific sorting, ensuring that “Åfjord Municipality” will now appear after “Ytre Helgeland District Psychiatric Centre” in Mimesbronn, the Norweigian Alaveteli site, as it should.

    Security

    We’ve dipped our toes into the water of two-factor authentication to keep accounts secure. As Alaveteli runs all over the world, on all kinds of devices, we’ve kept it simple without introducing the need for apps or other technologies. Users now have the option of activating an extra one time passcode that they’ll need to supply if they ever want to change their password in the future.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.18.25

    Spam spam spam spam

    We continue to fight the good fight against spam – in this release we introduce a configuration parameter that allows site admins to adjust the period in which requests remain open to responses – closing the window in which spammers can target them. We’ve also extended our use of reCAPTCHA to keep spambots at bay.

    Alaveteli, don’t phone home

    Thanks to Ian Chard, Alaveteli now uses a local GeoIP database by default to find the country for HTTP requests (and tell users if there is an Alaveteli in their country), rather than the mySociety Gaze service. This should improve performance and reliability.

    The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

    Image: Steve Smith (CC)