Suppose we sent an automated tweet every time someone made a successful Freedom of Information request on WhatDotheyKnow — would it bring more visitors to the site?
And, if you get a response to your first FOI request, does it mean you are more likely to make a second one?
These, and many more, are the kind of questions that emerge as we refine the advice that we’re offering partner organisations.
Our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli underpins Freedom of Information sites all around the world. When we first launched it, our only priorities were to make the code work, and to make that code as easy as possible to implement. But, as a community emerged around Alaveteli, we realised that we’d all be better off if we shared advice, successes and ideas.
And that’s where we began to encounter questions.
Some of them, like how to get more users, or how to understand where users come from, are common to anyone running a website.
Others are unique to our partner structure, in which effectively anyone in any part of the world may pick up the Alaveteli code and start their own site. In theory, we might know very little more than that a site is running, although we’ll always try to make contact and let the implementers know what help we can offer them.
There were so many questions that we soon saw the need to keep them all in one place. At mySociety, we’re accustomed to using Github for anything resembling a to-do list (as well as for its primary purposes; Github was designed to store code, allow multiple people to work on that code, and to suggest or review issues with it), and so we created a slightly unusual repo, Alaveteli-experiments.
This approach also gives us the benefit of transparency. Anyone can visit that repo and see what questions we are asking, how we intend to find the answers, and the results as they come in. What’s more, anyone who has (or opens) a Github account will also be able to add their own comments.
Some of the experiments, like this one to analyse whether people click the ‘similar requests’ links in the sidebar, we’re running on our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow. Others, such as this one about the successful requests listed on every Alaveteli site’s homepage, are being conducted on our partners’ sites.
Our aims are to find out more about how to bring more users to all Alaveteli sites, how to encourage browsing visitors to become people who make requests, and how to turn one-off requesters into people who come back and make another — and then pass all that on to our partners.
We hope you’ll find plenty of interest on there. We reckon it’s all relevant, especially to anyone running an FOI website, but in many cases to anyone wondering how best to improve a site’s effectiveness. And we’re very happy to hear your ideas, too: if we’ve missed some obvious experiment, or you’ve thought of something that would be really interesting to know through the application of this kind of research, you’re welcome to let us know.
Anyone who lives in public housing will know how frustrating it is when maintenance issues just don’t get fixed.
Imagine how you’d feel, though, if you knew that funds had been allocated, but the repairs still weren’t being made — and there was no sign of the money.
That’s the situation for the residents of public housing blocks in Kota Damansara, a township in Selangor State, Malaysia, whose problems range from termite and rat infestations to poor water sanitation, broken balcony railings, and beyond.
In Malaysia, there’s no obligation for authorities to publish data on how public funds are spent, so it’s easy for corruption to thrive. The Sinar Project, an organisation that might be called the Malaysian equivalent of mySociety, are trying to tackle this state of affairs with a two pronged approach. They recently wrote it up on the OKFN blog.
As you might expect, we pricked up our ears when we reached the part mentioning their use of FixMyStreet. Sinar already run aduanku.my, a FixMyStreet for Malaysia, using our open source code. Hazwany (Nany) Jamaluddin told of how a part of the site has been used to help provide concrete proof that repairs are not being made, and to put pressure on the authorities to do something about it.
We’re always going on about how flexible FixMyStreet is: in case you don’t already know, it’s been used in projects as diverse as reporting anti-social behaviour on public transport to a tie-in with a channel 4 TV programme. One use that’s often been suggested is for housing estate management: if the maps showed the floorplans of housing blocks rather than the default of streetmaps, the rest of the functionality would remain pretty much as it is, with reports going off to the relevant housing maintenance teams rather than council departments.
Sinar’s project does not try anything quite that ambitious, but nonetheless they have found a system that enables them to use FixMyStreet as part of their wider accountability project. They began by creating a new boundary for the Kota Damansara area on the website, and taught community leaders how to make reports for the public housing blocks within it.
Since the map does not display the interior of the buildings, reporters must take care to describe precisely which floor and which block the issue is on, within the body of the report, with pictures as supporting evidence. It’s a step away from FixMyStreet’s usual desire to provide everything the user needs in order to make an actionable report — and everything the recipient needs to act on it — but it is serviceable.
Ideally, Sinar would have liked the residents themselves to make the reports: after all, they are the ones facing the problems day to day; they know them more intimately and would describe them with more accuracy — but as Sinar’s social audit found, these residents are all under the poverty line: most do not have smartphones or internet connectivity at home.
Instead, the community leaders make the report and this is then also processed manually, because the housing management company requires submissions on paper.
You may be thinking, why go to all this bother? How does FixMyStreet play its part in the project, especially if you then have to transcribe the reports onto paper? It’s because FixMyStreet, as well as processing reports, has another side.
We often mention how FixMyStreet, by publishing reports online, can give an extra incentive to councils to get problems fixed. In Kota Damansara the effect will hopefully be greater: this small section of the wider Aduanku website stands as a visible record of where funds have not made it to where they are needed most — to fix those rat infestations and broken balconies.
Nonetheless, the management companies continue to deny that there is strong enough evidence that funds have been diverted. And so Sinar, undaunted, move on to their next weapon against corruption. The incoming and outgoing of funds have been, and will continue to be, examined via a series of Freedom of Information requests.
We wish Sinar all the best with this project and look forward to hearing that it has brought about change.
Today is a pretty special day. Not only is it International Right To Know Day, but this year also marks the 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of Information legislation, adopted by Sweden in 1766.
This would always have been an extra special launch for us: Alaveteli is named after a small town, at that time Swedish, which was home to FOI’s forefather Anders Chydenius.
Anders Chydenius played a crucial role in creating the 1766 constitutional Freedom of Press legislation, which included a Freedom of Information law in Sweden.
This legislation enshrined the abolishment of political censorship, and gave civil servants the right to Freedom of Whistleblowing in order to expose corruption. Crucially, it also established the first law of public access to government documents (including the right to anyone to access records anonymously) – the first intimations of what we know today as Freedom of Information, or the Right To Know.
So, 250 years later, we are thrilled that Alaveteli is now being used in the country where Chydenius, and others, fought hard to establish the world’s first access to information law.
Above all, we’re delighted that Swedish citizens now have an easy way to request information from public authorities; which, in turn, is creating an online archive of public knowledge that anyone can access.
We asked Mattias from Open Knowledge Sweden, who is coordinating the project, their reasons for setting up the site:
Why did you decide to set up FrågaStaten?
Sweden has created a narrative of itself as being one of the most open countries in the world. Rightly so, as we have one of the strongest constitutions on Freedom of Information.
However, throughout the last century and up until the present day, we’ve been going backwards. Most journalists, lawyers and historians have brought attention to this state of affairs, but it has not changed. This threatens our democracy and is more of a danger to our society than we might initially perceive.
The issue is that our constitutional Freedom of Information was written for an analog and paper-based society.
Since the advent of computers, IT and the Internet, FOI is yet to receive the much needed digitisation — even though this would create as much value today as FOI did back in 1766 when it was introduced. Why? Because it would force Swedish authorities to release information digitally.
Today they are still clinging on to the last remains of a paper-based society, stubbornly releasing public information on physical documents. Coincidentally Sweden has one of the highest use and coverage of the Internet among its citizens, but digitisation of the public sector is lagging behind the rest of society and other countries.
At the same time, the development of open data is currently very slow or non-existent. This is a situation which could be completely flipped to the positive if political representatives truly committed to digitising our Freedom of Information Act and system, as open data is much more valuable today in our information age than it was 250 years ago.
FrågaStaten will shine a light on this and demonstrate the multiple positive outcomes of this scenario — so that is also why we are doing this.
What made you choose to use Alaveteli software for your platform?
I am a strong believer in open source, its flexibility, compatibility and potential and I saw that Alaveteli was the option which had the most development, maintenance and also a global community.
What are your future plans for the site?
Our mission is to accelerate the open digitisation of Sweden and transition to an open government in which its people truly can hold their government accountable. This platform is an important experiment and a key foundation to our strategy to connect projects, communities and initiatives, enabling open and social innovation.
We have just applied for funding for a side-project to FrågaStaten which intends to make a systematic scrutiny of how the Swedish state and public sector performs when it comes to following the constitutional Freedom of Press and Freedom of Information. We hope it will connect more people to the cause and help shine light on the dark spots of our Freedom of Information Act, and the health of our Swedish constitution.
We wish Open Knowledge Sweden and FrågaStaten the best of luck in bringing Freedom of Information in Sweden into the 21st century. If you know anyone who would like to request information from Swedish public authorities, let them know about FrågaStaten!
If you fancy hearing more about Anders Chydenius and the first FOI law, please check out these upcoming events.
Researching in an unstable environment
It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.
The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.
These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.
However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.
The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.
We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.
The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.
We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.
There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.
Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:
“There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”
Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.
We’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.
So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.
In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.
Finally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!
No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.
As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.
Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.
While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.
Even official records aren’t as safe as you might think they are. The archive of a country’s political history might be wiped out in a single conflagration.
Take the example of Burkina Faso, a beautiful West African country that is, sadly, perhaps best known to the rest of the world for its troubled political past.
The uprising in Burkina Faso in 2014 led to a fire in the National Assembly building and archives office. Nearly 90% of the documents were lost. Now the National Assembly is working to reconstruct the list of its parliament’s members before 1992.
This means that the data EveryPolitician has on Burkina Faso has nothing from terms before 1992. We’ve got some data for six of the seven most recent terms from the National Assembly so far, of which five are live on the site. Even though that data is not very rich (there’s little more than names in many cases; and the 6th term was transitional so data on that one’s membership might remain elusive) it’s a beginning.
We know from experience that data-gathering often proceeds piecemeal, and names are always a good place to start.
As Tinto finds new data, whether that’s more information about the politicians already collected or membership lists of the missing terms before 1992, we’ll be adding that to EveryPolitician too.
A vast collection
When people ask what EveryPolitician is, we often say, ‘The clue’s in the name’. EveryPolitician aims to provide data about, well … every politician. In the world.
(We’ve limited our scope — for the time being — to politicians in national-level legislatures).
The project is growing. Since our launch last year, we’ve got data for legislatures in 233 countries. The amount of data we’ve collected currently comprises well over three million items. The number of politicians in our datafiles is now in excess of 70,000.
Seventy thousand is an awful lot of politicians.
In fact, if you think that might be more politicians than the world needs right now, you’re right: as the Burkina Faso example shows, EveryPolitician collects historic data too.
So as well as the people serving in today’s parliaments, our data includes increasing numbers of those from the past. (Obviously, if you have such data for your country’s legislature, we’d love to hear from you!)
More than just today’s data
The Burkina Faso fire is an illustration of the value of collecting and preserving this historic data.
Of course, we’re fully aware of the usefulness of current data, because we believe that by providing it we can seed many other projects — including, but in no way limited to, parliamentary monitoring sites around the world (sites like our own TheyWorkForYou in the UK, or Mzalendo in Kenya, for example).
Nonetheless, we never intended to limit ourselves to the present. By sharing and collating historic records too, we hope to enable researchers, journalists, historians and who-knows-who-else to investigate, model, or reveal connections and trends over time that we haven’t even begun to imagine. We know this data has value; we look forward to discovering just how much value.
But it turns out we’re providing a simpler potential benefit too. EveryPolitician’s core datafiles are an excellent distributed archive.
What Burkina Faso’s misfortune goes to show is that, as historians know only too well, data sources can be surprisingly fragile.
In this case the specific situation involves paper records being destroyed by fire. That is a simple analogue warning to the digital world. Websites and their underlying databases are considerably more volatile than the most flammable of paper archives.
Database-backed sites are often poor catalogues of their pasts. Links, servers and domain registrations all expire. Access to data may be revoked, firewalls can appear.
Digital data doesn’t fade; instead it is so transient that it can simply disappear.
Of course, we cannot ourselves guarantee that our servers will be here forever (we’re not planning on going anywhere, but projects like this have to be realistic about the longer view).
There is an intriguing consequence of us using GitHub as our datastore. The fact is, the EveryPolitician data you can download isn’t coming off our servers at all. Instead, we benefit from GitHub’s industrial-scale infrastructure, as well as the distributed nature of the version control system, git, on which it is based. By its nature, every time someone clones the repository (which is easy to do), they’re securing for themselves a complete copy of all the data.
But the point is not necessarily about data persisting far into the next millennium — that’s a bit presumptuous even for us, frankly — so much as its robustness over the shorter cycles of world events. So, should any nation’s data become inaccessible (who knows? for the length of an interregnum or civil war, a natural disaster, or maybe just a work crew accidentally cutting through the wrong cable outside parliament), we want to know the core data will remain publicly available until it’s back.
Naturally there are other aspects to the EveryPolitician project which are more — as modern language would have it — compelling than collecting old data about old politicians. But the usefulness of the EveryPolitician project as a persistent archive of historical data is one that we have not overlooked.
We’re helping our friends at Citizen Beta by sponsoring (and co-hosting) an international-themed event next Monday (25th April 2016, 7pm–10pm). There will be three presentations, one from OneWorld about their work overseas, one by our own Jen about some of our recent international projects, and then there’s the spotlight: a talk from the Kuala Lumpur-based Sinar Project.
If you’re in or near London, please do come: sign up on Citizen Beta’s attending.io page.
Citizen Beta is a roughly-monthly meetup for civic tech people. Next Monday’s event will follow the usual format of Q&As after each presentation with (deliberately) lots of meeting, mixing, and chatting too. It happens in Newspeak House in Shoreditch, and refreshments will be provided.
We’re very pleased to have been able to make this event happen. It was precipitated because Khairil from Sinar is coming over to our side of the world for mySociety’s forthcoming TICTeC 2016 conference in Barcelona. (If you haven’t already got a ticket to TICTeC then, sorry, you’re too late; but of course keep an eye on this blog because we’ll be sharing photos, videos and accounts from the event).
OneWorld, like mySociety, are based in the UK, but work all over the globe. Their projects often depend upon the classic civic tech components of web and mobile, but they’re also actively involved in addressing health and rights issues in the countries in which they operate. They have a wealth of experience from running projects in developing countries, especially when it comes to understanding both the capabilities and the limitations of the technologies they use.
The Sinar Project, which the aforementioned Khairil heads, is a civic tech group based in Kuala Lumpur. They first came to our attention because they were using two of our codebases (FixMyStreet and MapIt). We’ve been friends ever since, and it’s always been a delight when our international paths have crossed. In many ways Sinar perfectly epitomises the philosophy of civic tech/open source reuse that mySociety, and specifically Poplus, is so passionate about: when you have a small team of super-focused developers (shout-out to Sinar’s Motionman and Sweester!), you simply can’t afford to waste time reinventing the wheel.
On Monday evening Khairil will be showing some of the impressive ways they have been combining their tech skills and tools in a political environment which is considerably more hostile than that in the UK.
Oh, one last thing — sorry; we do realise that this is a London event. mySociety itself is a remote-working organisation, which means we’re spread all around the UK, so we know that not everything happens in London. But that’s where Citizen Beta is, so that’s where this particular meetup is happening.
It’s going to be great — so if you can come, please sign up. See you there!
Image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Horng Yih Wong of Khairil Yusof speaking at TEDxKL
For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.
Checking parliament.go.ke‘s list of MPs against Mzalendo’s, our developers discovered a large number of constituency mismatches. These, explained Jessica Musila from Mzalendo, came about because the official site has not reflected boundary changes made in 2013.
Even more significantly, the official parliament site currently only holds details of 173 of the National Assembly’s 349 MPs.
“The gaps in www.parliament.go.ke validate Mzalendo’s very existence,” said Jessica. We agree: it’s a great example of the sometimes unexpected needs filled by parliamentary monitoring websites.
And of course, through EveryPolitician, we’re working to make sure that every parliamentary monitoring website can access a good, reliable source of data.
A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.
This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.
According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.
With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.
Costa Rica will soon be holding elections, voting in mayors and local representatives for each canton — the equivalent of county level. Traditionally these elections have a low turnout — around 20% of the population — and very few people know who the candidates are.
Indeed, voters tend not to be very informed about the differences in role between councillors, representatives and mayors. As a result, many simply vote for family members, friends or people they know who are standing, rather than the issues the parties are campaigning about.
Technology to the rescue
Can technology help? You may remember YourNextMP, the crowdsourcing software which gathered details of every single candidate in the UK, prior to our own General Election last year.
That’s now been made available, as YourNextRepresentative, for international usage. Costa Rican version TusRepresentantesLocales launched a couple of weeks ago as a joint initiative between Accesa and mySociety.
Canton elections are a relatively recent institution in Costa Rica; the first Mayor was elected in 1998 and the February 2016 election will be the first time that all three positions go to ballot on the same day!
Accesa’s goal is to share knowledge about these elections to improve the turnout and have a more informed voter population.
As you may remember from YourNextMP, the data is mainly gathered via crowdsourcing — asking the general public to add verified information from news stories, political parties’ websites, etc. YourNextRepresentative works the same way.
Accesa will work with students from the Political Sciences school, community youth groups and in harder to reach cantons, such as the ones bordering Nicaragua, local government members.
Accesa also want provide something for the candidates that no one else provides: candidates are looking for more coverage of their work around the election — especially the representative candidates because there is generally more focus on the mayoral ones. TusRepresentantesLocales will give them a platform.
Manfred Vargas from Accesa says:
“One of the main challenges that Costa Rican democracy currently faces has to do with how to strengthen public interest in local elections and local governments.
The abstention rates in past local elections have been incredibly high and most citizens don’t even know who their mayors or councillors are. This year, for the first time, elections for all local positions will be consolidated in one single electoral process that will take place on February 7th, and there’s been a big push to make sure that citizens realise that their municipalities really do matter and their vote counts.
This site is our contribution to this effort and we believe strongly in it because it accomplishes two very important goals: it lets citizens know who their candidates are, and, by virtue of being a collective effort, it encourages citizen engagement and participation in the electoral process”.
We wish them luck for the elections and can’t wait to see the outcome!
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 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.