1. Freedom of Information in glorious ink

    Outside of her work for mySociety, our very own marketing and communications manager Myf somehow finds time to illustrate and sketch. She runs a popular personal blog (Myf Draws Apparently) which often includes sketch diaries of her adventures. The most recent one she’s just published is a lovely record of a trip to Madrid earlier this year.

    Only, it wasn’t just a trip to Madrid — she was there as part of the mySociety team at AlaveteliCon 2015.

    Alaveteli is mySociety’s Freedom of Information (FoI) platform, and AlaveteliCon was the second conference we’ve held on Freedom of Information technologies. It brings together people from all over the world who are involved in running sites like the UK’s WhatDoTheyKnow.

    One of the pages Myf drew is this wonderful flow diagram of the way platforms like Alaveteli actually experience Freedom of Information.

    Not everyone at the conference was running an Alaveteli-based site, which was sort of the point: the business of running FoI sites like these is not about the technology, it’s about the culture of citizens’ Right to Know. There’s a lot of variety in the FoI laws around the world, and they are regarded with wildly differing levels of enthusiasm by the authorities who ought to be bound by them. The groups running FoI sites invariably consist of individuals who are passionate and articulate on all aspects of Freedom of Information. At the conference, they shared tales of frustration in the face of intransigent or occasionally devious public authorities; anecdotes demonstrating beatific levels of patience in the face of obdurate official departments; and, of course, some wonderful stories of success.

    Myf has captured some of this in her sketch diary. Although she didn’t create it for mySociety, some of us think that flow chart is too delightful and too relevant not to share here.

    To see all of Myf’s Madrid diary (it’s in five parts), start at part one.

  2. A new way of offering help to people reusing our codebases

    Our International team get many enquiries from people and organisations who want to re-use our code, all around the world, and would like a little help doing so. As, sadly, there is limited time in the day, we find that we can’t donate our resources to everyone who asks.

    Up until now, we’ve had a fairly ad-hoc approach. Typically, someone makes contact, we send emails back and forth to find out more about their proposed project, and then we make a decision about whether we can offer some developer time and help.

    But that’s not really fair: it means that, if we accept one project and then the next week another approach comes in from a project that is just as suitable, we could have committed all our developer time and resource to the first group.

    All change

    So, we plan to put a new system in place. Here’s the deal:

    • Those who would like our help will be asked to fill in an application form with all the details that we’d normally be extracting during those back-and-forth emails
    • These applications will be assessed on a quarterly basis
    • We’ll let applicants know whether they have been successful within seven days of the closing date
    • Not everyone who applies will be successful, but they’ll have another three months in which to reapply with additional information, should they wish

    We think that this system is fairer for everyone, and we hope you agree.

    If you’ve recently approached us to enquire about getting our help, please bear with us while we transition to this new system: we’ll be in touch soon.

    If you’re a group or an individual that might be interested in our help, you can start your application here.

    Image: See-Ming Lee (cc)

  3. How quickly can we get to 200 countries on Every Politician?

    Just how quickly can we hit the 200 countries mark on EveryPolitician? That’s what we’ll be finding out this week, and one thing’s for sure — we’ll get a lot further with your help.

    This week is GLOW, the Global Legislative Openness Week, and we’re marking it with a concerted drive for more data.

    Tony, the project lead, has consistently added one new country every day since EveryPolitician launched four months ago, and now it’s time to put a rocket behind our efforts.

    The site currently contains data for 134 countries. We’ll be going flat out to see how quickly we can reach 200, and as the excitement ramps up, we hope you will help spread the word and get involved, too. Tony will carry on working as hard as he can to fill in the gaps, but we need your help to get further, faster.

    What is EveryPolitician?

    EveryPolitician is our project to store and share open data on every national-level legislator in the world — all in a standard format that can be used by anyone. We wrote about it here.

    How can I help?

    • Help us find data for more countries! We don’t currently know where to find the politician data for many countries. Here’s a list of the ones we need and here’s a page about how to contribute. If you get stuck, give us a shout.
    • Write a scraper If you have the know-how, you can help us enormously by helping scrape the data from the places we do know about. See this page for guidance on how to go about writing a scraper. You’ll find lots of examples here.
    • You can also help by spreading the word – tell your friends, tweet, blog, get up on a platform and talk, and just generally share this post. Thank you!

    Why do we need this data?

    Politician data is readily available for most countries, but it comes in a massive variety of inconsistent formats. Most of those formats aren’t ‘machine readable’, that is to say, the data can’t readily be extracted and re-used by programmers, and pretty much every country differs on what information it provides about each politician.

    That being the case, anyone who wants to build an online tool that deals with politicians from more than one country, or who would like their tool to be available to people in other places, or would like to adapt an existing tool to be used elsewhere, would first have to adapt their tool to cope with the data.

    EveryPolitician saves them the trouble, and the structured format also means that the tools they build will be compatible with any other tools that use it.

    What kind of tools?

    EveryPolitician data will be useful for all kinds of projects.

    It’ll be much easier to build a website that shows people how to contact a politician. Or one that holds a government to account and educates people about what politicians are doing. Or one that helps voters make choices by displaying facts about what their politicians believe.

    It can go further than that, though — with these building blocks in place, developers can really use their imagination to put together all kinds of projects, many of which we haven’t even begun to imagine. And don’t forget that, if a tool has been built to use the standardised data, it’ll also be easy for others to redeploy elsewhere.

    If you’d like to see a concrete way in which the data’s already being used, check out Gender Balance.

    How can I keep up to date?

    We’ll be putting out regular updates via Twitter as the number of countries covered increases — plus you can watch the map turn green on http://everypolitician.org/countries.html as we progress.

  4. YourNextRepresentative: helping inform the Argentine electorate

    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.

  5. Videos from AlaveteliCon

    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.


  6. La Constitución De Todos: how Morocco shared code with Chile, via Poplus

    Congratulations to CEHUM in Chile, who have just announced the launch of La Constitución De Todos (Constitution For All).

    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.



  7. Hello Academics of the world, we would like to work with you!

    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.

    Into the unkown

    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 research@mysociety.org


    • Argentina
    • Chile
    • Hungary
    • Kenya
    • Malaysia
    • Mexico
    • Norway
    • South Africa
    • Ukraine
    • Uruguay

    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

  8. Research: Assessing the Impact of Alaveteli

    Image by  Véronique Debord-LazaroToday, 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]

    2. Main report, based on qualitative research into FOI sites around the world [PDF]

    3. Critical success factors and recommendations [PDF]

    The methodology

    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.

    The motivation

    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.”


    Image credit: Véronique Debord-Lazaro (CC)

  9. More on design thinking and why we’re using it

    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.20140723_120014

    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.

    20140725_090407For 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.

    20140723_111135After 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.

  10. Alaveteli: sharing experiences

    Share Your Idweas Board by Walter ParenteauOn 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.

    Image: Walter Parenteau (CC)