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.
Dave Whiteland, part of mySociety’s international outreach team, will be taking part in a Transparency and Accountability Initiative webinar this Wednesday: Getting Citizens Engaged in your Transparency and Accountability Work.
How is that spreadsheet going to engage and inspire people? You need to translate data into information that will change or impact their lives. During this webinar, you’ll get an understanding of how to identify the right data and how to package it to effectively connect with your audience. We will also look at creative ways to motivate citizens to give you data.
Everyone is welcome to attend. You just need to register at http://tabridge062514.eventbrite.com and then on Wednesday the 25th of June, at 15:00 UK time, visit http://osf.adobeconnect.com/tabridge062514/
The content of this webinar is taken from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s new publication “Fundamentals for Using Technology in Transparency and Accountability Organisations” and is hosted by the author, Dirk Slater.
On Wednesday we had our first community virtual hangout for Alaveteli. The idea of a drop-in virtual meeting was inspired by meeting community members in person over the last few months.
Louise visited AskTheEU in Madrid and mySociety’s International Team spent time with community members from Australia, Spain, Canada and many other countries at Transparency Camp. Henare’s session with David Cabo and Michael Morisy from MuckRock on FOIA at Transparency Camp provided an inspirational opportunity to talk more with the people running Alaveteli sites.
We wanted to have a regular time where we could share experiences of running FOI sites in general and installing the Alaveteli software in particular. Though everyone that joined was running an Alaveteli install, we’d love for people interested in running a site or who already run a site using different software to join future hangouts! Your experiences could shed light on issues that people might be having, and vice versa.
It was great to learn from groups in Romania, Canada, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. We had representatives from three new or fairly new installs as well as sites like Right To Know and FYI.Nz which have been running for a couple of years, each with their own stories of success and pinch points where things have been more difficult.
What did we learn?
First off, we have a great, open community that’s happy to discuss problems, suggest solutions and speak about what it’s like to run an FOI site in their countries. So thank you for that!
Despite differences in laws across the world, people do face similar issues in driving awareness of FOI and FOIA sites. People share ideas for positioning FOI sites came up such as using them to investigate specific issues that are current and getting a lot of press. For example the issue of detention logs in Australia (which you can see more of here and here) helped Right To Know raise more awareness of both the FOI law and the site. According to Henare:
“The news buzz made people realise they had FOI rights, which isn’t general knowledge in Australia. They started thinking “oh, I could put in a request about X””
The next hangout will be in around a month and we’re going to set an agenda to talk about different ways to increase usage and awareness of FOI sites, what has worked, and what hasn’t. All details will be posted on the google group, please join if you want to attend!
We also got some great feedback on places where we can support people launching and running an Alaveteli install – by making it easier to make a complete set of translations for a particular release of the software, and by making the process of upgrading to a new version easier in general. All this input is really useful to us, especially as we’re currently updating the documentation on Alaveteli.org to make it easier to get started.
Finally we touched on the alaveteli-users google group as a place where people can share their issues, stories and successes, and get input from other FOI practitioners. It’s useful for tapping into the expertise of teams in other timezones! This seemed like a pretty decent plan when it was mentioned, do let us know what you think!
The right conference, held at the right time and attended by people with common problems, can sometimes give birth to whole new organisations. I was at OpenTech when the Open Rights Group was born, and on a grander scale the Red Cross and the UN both featured conferences at catalytic moments in their early history.
Last week in Santiago, Chile, a conference took place that felt like exactly such a moment – PoplusCon. People from 27 countries spent two days talking about their shared goals and desires, and from it the skeleton of a new federation – the Poplus federation – started to take shape.
Not everyone at the conference worked on identical projects, or had identical skills. Some people were specialists in tracking suspicious relationships (‘This guy’s brother-in-law gets all the contracts’), others were big into training journalists how to use FOI, others specialised in making important datasets more accessible to members of the public, others still were journalists, skilled at constructing stories. But one theme emerged pretty quickly – people wanted better, easier, more reliable ways of sharing knowledge and sharing technology, so that they could all save time, effort and money.
What could a new federation do for you?
And so that is how the conversation turned to the idea of founding a new federation – an organisation that could serve the needs of many different groups without being run or owned by any one of them. In a brainstorm session about what people wanted from a new federation, the following ideas were raised:
- Running events to facilitate more sharing of ideas and tech
- Publishing stories about successful and unsuccessful projects, especially where those stories need to cross language barriers to spread
- Vetting and endorsing data standards
- Access to a community of peers (for sharing experience, encouragement, tips and tricks etc)
- Resources for projects that are running short
- Help and advice on making projects sustainable
- Certification of what counts as a Poplus Component
- Where groups face common challenges, perhaps coordinate advocacy
- Organisation of mentorship, exchanges and placements
This wish list is clearly far more than a nascent organisation could arrange in the near future, but there was some informal voting and the top priorities fairly quickly emerged. People really wanted access to their peers, and to the stories that they tell. And there was a strong wish to see Poplus Components become more official, and better explained.
Getting Real – Getting Involved
But a list is just a list without people willing to make it real. And so without doubt the most awesome thing that took place at PoplusCon was that eight people immediately volunteered to form a committee that would bring Poplus into being, representing half a dozen countries in different parts of the world.
This committee, which is completely open for anyone to join, will be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to agree on a plan for the first 12 months of the Poplus federation. It will work out how the new-born federation should govern itself, and what the first things that this entirely volunteer-run group should be doing. It’s an exciting, fragile moment and I’ve not seen anything like it in my ten-odd years working in this field. There’s no boss, no leader, just some people trying to build something of shared value.
Right now there are no rules, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy. In fact there’s nothing but some hope, enthusiasm and some shared dreams of a stronger community of individuals and organisations.
I hope that if you read this and think that Poplus sounds cool, that you’ll consider joining the committee too. All you have to do is join the mailing list and ask where and when to show up. If you come to online committee meetings a couple of times, you’re de facto one of the people who runs Poplus. What happens next is – quite literally – down to you.