1. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 3

    This is Part three in a blog post series highlighting information that has been disclosed thanks to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here are part one and part two.

    In this edition, we’re highlighting stories from Australian site RightToKnow, European Union-wide AsktheEU and Rwandan site Sobanukirwa.

    Australian police use banned restraint technique on asylum seekers

    Detention Logs is a project that publishes data, documents and investigations that reveal information on conditions and events inside Australia’s immigration detention network.

    As part of the project, Detention Logs used Alaveteli site RightToKnow to ask the Australian Department of Immigration to disclose incident reports from detention facilities.

    One such incident report revealed that the Department of Immigration approved the use of a controversial body lock technique on an asylum seeker.

    The incident report describes the restraint as follows:

    “The seat belt was fastened. The client and the escort staff were the first passengers to board the plane. As the client continued screaming and resisting, DIAC staff issued instruction to the escort staff to ‘lock the client down’ by pushing her chest towards her knees. However, the client still continued screaming loudly and attracting attention of the cabin crew.”

    According to New Matilda and Detention Logs, the account of the restraint strongly resembles the “seated double embrace” technique banned by police in Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, and some government agencies in the United Kingdom.

    The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice banned this technique in juvenile detention facilities, following the death of 15-year-old Gareth Myatt in 2004.

    Why the EU’s taking its time on restricting harmful chemicals

    Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that are present in everyday products – from plastics and cosmetics to pesticides. Because of their ability to interact with the hormonal (endocrine) systems of living organisms, they are suspected of having serious health and environmental impacts.

    The European Union is supposed to regulate EDCs, in order to protect citizens from harmful effects. Both the EU’s 2009 pesticide regulation and the European chemicals package (REACH) demand that the EU take action on these chemicals.

    However, several years later, the European Commission is still no closer to taking concrete action.

    FOI requests made on AsktheEU have led to the disclosure of correspondence between the European Commission and various stakeholders regarding proposed EU legislation on the restriction of EDCs.

    The documents have helped journalist Stéphane Horel and research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) to piece together why the process has stalled, and what has been said behind closed Commission doors.

    To communicate their findings, they produced a book and documentary, which explains how corporations, and even actors within the Commission, are stalling the process of this key public health and environment legislation.

    Now Rwandans can find out when their parliament is in session

    The Rwandan parliament now publish the Chamber of Deputies’ schedule of debates/activities for each day on the homepage of their official website (under ‘Today in Parliament’).

    This follows an FOI request on Rwandan Alaveteli site Sobanukirwa, which urges the parliament to do just that. The Sobanukirwa team don’t know for sure if their request influenced parliament’s decision to publish this information, but we are pretty sure it had an impact.

    The Australian and EU examples above show the power of making a lot of FOI requests, across authorities, and then grouping them together to create/support a project or investigation about a wider issue of public concern.

    The Rwandan example shows that perhaps, just perhaps, a single request can cause a big impact.

    So, what do you want to investigate? What have you always wanted to know? Start your own investigation to unearth truths that may just surprise you, and use an Alaveteli site to help you.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Image: Jenny Lee Silver, (CC).

  2. A new Sass workflow for Alaveteli theming

    We recently made some changes to our Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, that makes it twice as easy for partners to change the look and feel of their site. This post goes quite in-depth, so it’s probably best suited for designers, developers and other technically-minded readers


    This year we embarked on a ground-up redesign of Alaveteli’s theming capabilities to make customising Alaveteli easier and faster. We used a mixture of techniques to try to achieve this and since releasing the update we’re happy to have seen a decrease in the complexity of our themes, and the time we spend making them.

    Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform is one of our most deployed software packages and each deployment requires some customisation, from simple branding changes to complex functionality to support a country’s FOI process. This is either done internally by our own developers, or our partners take this on themselves.

    An Alaveteli deployment consists of two things, the core: the guts of Alaveteli with no customisations, and the theme: the aesthetic and functional customisations made to each site. We ship Alaveteli with a fully-featured base theme that gives partners a good starting point to work from, but they can also start their own theme from scratch.

    After talking to our partners and the Alaveteli team we felt that the process of theming was too complicated and involved. It required a lot of knowledge of Alaveteli’s inner workings, was coded in a way that made it hard to understand, and almost always required the intervention of a front-end expert, even to make trivial changes.

    Our vision for how Alaveteli’s theming should work was:

    • Intuitive Front-end developers and designers should be able to follow and understand the templates without needing expert knowledge about Alaveteli’s inner-workings.
    • Flexible Overriding Alaveteli’s core code should be easy, so a theme should use low-specificity, componentised code to enable this.
    • Supportive Should a partner decide to only change a few colours, or embark on a large-scale redesign Alaveteli, the theming process should never get in the way.

    How we did it

    Using the tools we have

    Alaveteli is built on Ruby on Rails, so our first goal was to make better use of Ruby on Rail’s template inheritance.

    Firstly, we split all of the Sass files into logical components.

    Each component has two associated Sass files, a layout.scss and a style.scss. layout.scss describes only layout of a component, e.g. the physical dimensions and position on a page. style.scss describes the styles, for example typefaces, colours, borders and other presentational properties.

    Should a partner wish to totally redesign or replace a component, they can replace both files with their own. Alternatively they can just choose to replace one part of the component, for example keeping the layout, but replacing the styles.

    Ensuring the lowest possible specificity

    When customising Alaveteli we want to be sure that a partner never has to fight with the base theme to achieve their goals. The most important part of this is to ensure CSS styles are easy to override.

    Firstly we removed all ID selector’s from Alaveteli’s stylesheets and replaced them with class selectors, giving us a good jumping off point as class selectors have much lower specificity than IDs. We then rewrote and refactored Alaveteli’s CSS using the Block Element Modifier methodology (BEM).

    BEM helped us in two ways: it’s written in a way that makes CSS self-describing, for example the code snippet .header__navigation__list tells us that this list is a child of the navigation element and a grandchild of the header element.

    As well as this, using a single class to define the styles for this element means that using BEM gives our styles the lowest possible specificity, so partners can override them with little resistance.

    Using a settings partial

    All of our theme’s styles use the variables defined in _settings.scss when referencing colours, typefaces, spacing, and even logo files so the bulk of Alaveteli’s customisation can be done in our base theme’s settings partial _settings.scss.

    This allows partners to make simple changes which have a huge impact on the look and feel of the site. We’ve found that the large majority of our theme customisation can be done by just changing the variables in this file and it has sped up the theming process markedly.

    Impact

    We’ve quietly rolled out these updates to Alaveteli over the past 12 months and the impact of the changes has been encouraging.

    Internally, we’ve found our theming projects are faster and more efficient. We conservatively estimate that it takes half the time to make a new theme than it used to.

    Thanks to the self-documenting nature of BEM and the styles encapsulated in our settings partial, Alaveteli theming requires a lot less understanding of the platform’s inner workings. Our partners are able to be more self-sufficient and rarely require our intervention to assist with simple customisations.

    Maintenance and support of our themes is greatly simplified, as the structure is consistent across projects, we’re able to roll out further changes and fixes in a more predictable way.
    Overall, we’re really happy with how the changes worked out and the things we’ve learnt from this project we’ll be carrying into our others too, so look out for changes like across our work in the future.

  3. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 2

    This is Part Two in a blog post series to highlight interesting and impactful requests that have been made through the 25 websites running our Alaveteli FOI software across the world. You can see Part One here.

    This time, we’re highlighting four interesting stories, from Hungary’s Alaveteli site KiMitTud and the pan-European site AsktheEU.

    The European Commission really doesn’t want us to know about their correspondence with tobacco lobbyists

    Last year, the research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) sent a request for documents relating to all correspondence/meetings between DG Trade officials and tobacco lobbyists from January 2014 to March 2015 on AsktheEU.org.

    Following this, the European Commission ‘released’ very heavily redacted documents concerning their contacts with the tobacco industry on EU trade negotiations, including the ongoing EU-Japan and EU-US trade talks (TTIP).

    In all four documents (correspondence with and minutes of meetings with tobacco lobbyists) virtually all the content is blacked out, including the names of all tobacco lobbyists and Commission officials involved. Only around 5% of the text is visible.

    As CEO points out, the Commission’s secrecy around its relations with tobacco industry lobbyists and its international trade negotiations causes great concern and highlights the lack of transparency within the Commission.

    To read the full story, see this article on CEO’s website.

    (more…)

  4. 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…)

  5. 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)

     

  6. 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)

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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

  10. 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.