Remember the UK General Election? Yes, we know it’s a distant memory now, and you’ve probably forgotten YourNextMP, too. But the project is far from dormant!
YourNextMP successfully crowd-sourced information on every election candidate, and made it available as open data for anyone who wanted to use it to build useful websites and online tools.
And while here in the UK we won’t have further use for it until 2020, the great news is that the underlying code can be repurposed to work for other elections around the world. Thanks to Yo Quiero Saber, the first of these is now live and collecting data for Argentina at http://investigacion.yoquierosaber.org/, and there are also plans for DataMade Chicago to use it in the USA.
In Argentina, the crowdsourcing component sits as part of a wider voter informing project. Martín Szyszlican from Yo Quiero Saber explains more:
We just launched Yo Quiero Saber and it’s had a great reception. You’re welcome to visit our main site, where we feature the game and full profiles for candidates for presidency and governors of four provinces.
You can also see our YourNextRepresentative instance (we renamed it, since MP is not a relevant term for us) where, in just two weeks, we’ve already had more than 100 registered users, and have also managed to add all the official candidates from DINE (the national elections office).
We’re still missing city-level and provincial-level candidates from the site, but that’s going to be improved before the October general elections.
So far, we’ve had 350,000 unique users and a million page views since launch. That means we are close to reaching 1% of the total number of voters in the country. Neatly, the number of people who have used the site is roughly equivalent to the number of voters a party needs to pass from this election to the next ones.
Media reception has been great with online portals big, small and regional mentioning our site and some of them embedding our game in their articles. We’ve also been kept busy with radio interviews and some tv programmes featuring the game. In Argentina, the media is deeply split down party lines, and we very much like the fact that we’ve surfed that divide, being featured in media from both sides of the political spectrum.
This is just the beginning: we’re working as an alliance of local NGOs, and our bid for a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation has been successful, meaning that we can forge ahead with our plans. We’ve also had support from HacksLabs, a data journalism accelerator. The full list of partners can be found on the footer of both sites.
We’re really glad to hear of this success—it’s great to see the code get another lease of life, which is, of course, what the Poplus project is all about.
Naturally, the YourNextRepresentative codebase also available to other countries who want to help inform their electorates, and what’s more, Martín says they’ll be glad to offer help to anyone who wants it. That goes for us here at mySociety too.
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.
La Constitución De Todos allows citizens to discuss, vote on and propose changes to each article of the constitution online, using code that originates from Morocco’s Legislation Lab from GovRight.
The launch comes in the context of the new Chilean president announcing that there will be a widespread public consultation on a constitution for the nation.
The two organisations might never have met, if it hadn’t been for the Poplus kick-off conference back in 2014, where the idea was first mooted, and GovRight stepped in to offer help.
The Poplus federation was founded on the idea that sharing civic code and knowledge can benefit organisations worldwide: this project is another superb example of exactly that.
We at mySociety build and popularise digital tools worldwide that help citizens exert power over institutions and decision-makers. Or do we?
Wanting to know whether our well-meaning civic tech is actually making a difference, mySociety recently created the post of Head of Research. My name is Dr Rebecca Rumbul, and I have now been installed in that role for about 6 weeks. I want to know if civic tech like ours is having an impact on citizens and governments, and how such sites operate and negotiate issues not just in the UK, but in the 50 or so countries that we know have digital democracy websites operating in them.
There is enormous scope for interesting and important research to be conducted using sites such as the ones that mySociety and our partners operate. The digital nature of our focus means that we can collect large volumes of data online at a low cost.
That said, there is nothing quite like making connections on the ground or meeting people face to face. mySociety is a small NGO, and does not have the capacity to conduct all of the research activities it would like on its own.
Therefore, we are actively seeking to work with academic partners on both qualitative and quantitative research focusing on the impact of civic tech.
We are planning to conduct research in the following countries. If you are an academic based in one of these countries and interested in our research agenda, please get in touch. We will be very happy to hear from you. Contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org
- South Africa
We conduct and disseminate research regularly. If you would like to hear more about our activities and events, sign up for our newsletter.
Image credit: Into the Unknown by Gary Gao (angrytoast), CC BY-NC 2.0
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.”
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.
On our second monthly Alaveteli hangout, Henare Degan from the OpenAustralia Foundation led the discussion. The Australian team running Right To Know had some great experience to share from the Detention Logs group’s use of their site, and we can only thank them for volunteering to chair our chat.
This month we had groups running sites in Hungary, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Australia and the UK on the call. This allowed us to gather interesting perspectives on different site promotion techniques – from sites that have recently started and sites that have been running for a while.
Did you know, for example, that internet TV was so popular in Ukraine during the Winter Uprising that the promotional video for the Ukrainian Alaveteli instance was watched by over 20,000 people?
That’s the kind of thing we love learning from people running FOI sites in different countries. We’re lucky to be a part of a community where people are willing to talk candidly about their experiences. Especially when some might be as tricky as the ones Hungary are facing, with a series of increasingly obstructive laws being put into place.
We saw that Australia and Hungary have something in common: a number of requests come from journalists or activists, as opposed to in Ukraine where people make requests through the site because they’re simply glad to have a place to ask the authorities for help.
The Czech team told us that they’re pleased with the level of government responsiveness to questions through their site, which has recently topped the 2,500 request mark.
We heard about different methods groups are using to promote their sites; from promoting specific requests on Facebook in the Czech Republic, to linking up with journalists and FOI activists to seed the Right To Know site with requests before launch, to the Ukraine media coverage, both using internet TV and short film documentaries.
And a fun idea from a Czech NGO that the Informace pro všechny team are working with: an Open/Not Open competition with Awards for the most open government departments or public bodies. As they mentioned, there aren’t many awards in the public sector and recognition of public bodies’ efforts may encourage further public bodies to open up.
Finally we spoke about sharing the outcomes of some research work that mySociety is doing around Alaveteli and FOI. We also decided that sharing statistics on rates of requests and other such quantitative data might help the community, so we’ll look at the data mySociety is collecting and try and figure out the best way to share that.
The hackpad is here if you want to see our notes from the meeting!
We’ll have our next call in September, and will hopefully be putting information out on the two mailing lists about how to attend and what topics we might cover.
Last year Dave Whiteland wrote about our first experience of using design thinking in creating the specification for a Freedom of Information Project in South Africa.
For those of you unfamiliar with the design thinking approach, it is worth me providing a little context (borrowing heavily from Dave’s text).
The design thinking way
Traditionally mySociety has built international digital projects by working closely with our local partner to define a specification. We then build to this specification and seek to continually improve it . We perform usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. The problem is that much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.
Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.
Our commitment to the process
mySociety is dedicated to maximizing the impact of its projects by tailoring solutions to the local context. As part of this, we have committed to only carrying out new large-scale international digital projects where we can follow these design principles. One challenge with this approach is that, unlike traditional projects, we are unable to provide funders with a clear description of what the project will deliver. At the start of the process the tools that will be built and the processes and infrastructure that will surround them are unclear. Furthermore, all this prototyping and piloting adds to the time these projects take to complete.
In Making All Voices Count we were incredibly fortunate to find a funder who was not only undeterred by these concerns but actively appreciated the value of the approach. Earlier this year they awarded us a scaling grant to work for a two-year period on a Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
On the ground in Liberia
Last week the project team met up in Monrovia to start the design process. Our partners on the project are the iLab Liberia and Public Works at Stanford, an offshoot of the d.school which focuses on applying design thinking to governance in the developing world. The staff working on the project are Luther Jeke, Carter Draper and Teemu Ropponen (Ilab); Jenny Stefanotti (Stanford); and Paul Lenz, Dave Whiteland and Jen Bramley (mySociety).
So what does this actually entail? Briefly, it first involves meeting with a large range of different stakeholders, users and potential users and building up an understanding of their current behaviours, their needs, challenges and perspectives. We interviewed more than 20 people, including the Information Minister, the Independent Information Commissioner, investigative journalists, Public Information Officers, FOI NGOs and community groups.
Each day we would break down our notes from these interviews into things said, thought, done or felt, and group them by type of stakeholder. This is a very active and visual process, resulting in sheets of paper being covered in hundreds of Post-It notes.
In working through this process it became clear to us that there were a number of common issues. Firstly, while the FOI law in Liberia is legally very strong, in practice adherence is pretty poor – partially due to simple process failures, and perhaps sometimes due to willful avoidance. Secondly, despite significant resources being invested in “sensitising” (educating) citizens about the law, very few FOI requests have ever been made by individual “average” citizens; rather they have been submitted by NGOs, journalists and activist groups. These two finding might not be hugely surprising, but others were perhaps less obvious. For example, almost without exception, the Public Information Officers that we met were deeply proud of their work and wished the FOI law was used more; even though the law allows for electronic or phone call requests to be made in reality each request must be hand-delivered, hard copy, and a receipt obtained; finally, even skilled and experienced investigative journalists can end up spending years chasing requests through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that takes advantage of the requester’s ignorance of the detail of the law.
The next stage, that we are really only just starting, is to identify some approaches that might address these issues, and then to find a way to attempt to prototype the solutions. To save time and cost and in order to enable maximum flexibility these prototypes often take a “Wizard of Oz” approach – human intervention in lieu of building a technical platform to trial. An example would be rather than building an SMS gateway that interfaces with a computer system the prototype relies upon a person simply receiving the SMS on their phone and typing it into a form.
The week was incredibly intense and rewarding driven by Jenny’s fantastic energy in overseeing the whole process, and the great commitment and engagement from the iLab team – particularly given the developing situation with Ebola while we were there.
Freedom of Information: really?
You might ask: given the infrastructure, income and health challenges facing Liberia , does FOI really matter? Is it perhaps a right to be addressed when more essential needs have been met? Are people even worried about being able to request information from their representatives, due to the other factors at play?
I can make no more compelling case in response than one that was made to me by one of our interviewees:
“Liberia went to war over the mismanagement of natural resources in our country. FOI can help hold people to account and stop it happening again”
Alaveteli is our platform for anyone who wants to run their own Freedom of Information website. It’s what underpins our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow, and it’s open source software available for anyone, in any part of the world, to use.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been making improvements to Alaveteli – the aim is to make it as easy as possible to install and use.
You’ll now find that – as well as a snazzy new look for the Alaveteli site – there’s much better documentation and installation instructions. We’ve also consolidated documentation into one place, and we’re working through it all, making sure that everything in there is completely up to date.
In short, if you’ve been thinking about running your own Right To Know site, there’s no better time to get started! The Alaveteli community are standing by to help you – and the documentation’s never been clearer.
June 23rd saw the soft launch of an innovative new tool that uses a Poplus Component as an integral part. It’s called Nouabook.ma and allows constituents in Morocco to contact their elected representatives, either through the website or while logged in to Facebook.
Nouabook is built on top of the WriteIt Poplus Component developed by Ciudadano Inteligente and connects into Facebook, one of the most used websites in Morocco. The group behind the site are SimSim-Participation Citoyenne and developer Tarik Nesh-Nash.
This is an exciting time for the whole Poplus network. The community has been going from strength to strength since the conference in April, and this tool, the first built by an external group using a Poplus Component, is a real sign that it is beginning to spread its wings.
And of course, because all Poplus Components are open-source, Nouabook is available for any other group to use! An exciting prospect as social media is such an important tool for communication in today’s society.
How did this project come about?
To decide the right approach, SimSim and Tarik conducted surveys of citizens throughout Morocco to find out how many had ever contacted their representatives. The results showed that of 80 respondents, 81% had never written to their representative. Yet 73% said that if it was easier to get in touch, they would be more likely to contact their representative, on issues ranging from public transport to security at Moroccan universities.
Couple this thirst for communication with the fact that Facebook is one of the most popular websites in Morocco , and the idea for Nouabook.ma was born.
Nouabook.ma (meaning “Your Deputies” in Moroccan Arabic, but also a reference to the well known Facebook) allows users to find their representative, read a profile on them including their roles and responsibilities, and see their activity in Parliament. Most crucially, it also allows users to publicly put questions directly to their representatives, who can respond equally publicly on the site. A user can submit a question either by filling in a short form, or uploading a short video. Other users can vote on their questions, meaning the representative can quickly see which questions are most important for their constituents and prioritise their answers. For those who have authorised it, the question is posted automatically to their Facebook page. By enabling users to easily share questions and responses on their own timeline, this helps to spread information beyond the boundaries of the original Nouabook.ma site.
The site is currently in Beta and a small group of very engaged hand-picked representatives have signed up for the site. Of these, there are 4 or 5 who are already getting very involved answering questions, which is a huge success for the site. Once the pilot phase is over, the hope is to extend the platform to cover the whole Moroccan Parliament, so keep your eyes peeled for news come the next Parliamentary session in October.
So far the site is only in French, but if you read French and want to give some feedback there’s a short form here which will help the team with their next stage of development. The site will soon be in Arabic as well.
Tablet Picture by ebayink courtesy of Flickr and the creative commons license.