1. Crowd-sourcing candidate data in Costa Rica: TusRepresentantesLocales

    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.

    5243818933_a399f4fb40_zCanton 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!

     

    Images: Ingmar Zahorsky (CC)

  2. Launching infoLib Liberia: optimism and hard work

    On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.

    The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.

    The platform, jointly build by iLab Liberia and mySociety, is Liberia’s first step in streamlining the process of making a freedom of information request.

    The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.

    Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.

    The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.

    So what’s next?

    Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.

    In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.

    Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.

    In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.

    Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.

    Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.

  3. Apply for support and development: closing soon

    Are you thinking of setting up a site using one of these codebases?

    If so, you should know that you can apply for our help with development, hosting, and support. Hurry, though: the cut-off date for the next round of applications is 31 January.

    Due to our own limited resources, we can’t offer help to every potential project — but if you can show that your planned project will be useful, viable, and resourced for the long term, you’ll stand a very good chance.

    Start by reading more about what partnership with mySociety means, and then, if that sounds right for you, you can fill in the application form here.

     

    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

     

  4. When MPs are absent: the difference between the UK and Ghana

    At TheyWorkForYou, we recently received an email from a novelist who was researching a historical work. She wanted to know whether a certain MP would have been present in the House of Commons on a specific date in 1953.

    We had to reply that the only way to be sure was if he had spoken or voted on the date in question.

    Perhaps strangely, Parliament does not keep official records of MPs’ attendance — nor are there lower limits on how many times an MP must be present in order to keep their position, although their own party will have strong feelings about their attendance.

    So, in terms of an official record, the only way to be sure that an MP was in the House on a specific date is if they spoke, or voted, both of which actions are of course reflected in Hansard and on TheyWorkForYou.

    Things are, it seems, quite different in Ghana, where the TheyWorkForYou equivalent, Odekro, has recently drawn attention to its country’s non-attending MPs. Odekro runs on our parliamentary-monitoring platform, Pombola.

    In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, they point out that 125 MPs, or 45.2% of the house, failed to meet the constitution’s requirement for attendance, having been absent for more than 15 days of proceedings. If the MPs are unable to give reasonable explanations for their absence, Odekro is calling for their seats to be declared absent:

    If the court order is granted and/or the Speaker declares these seats vacant, the practical result would be that many of the MPs who were recently re-elected by the NDC and NPP as Parliamentary candidates will have to contest by-elections to retain their seats, before the general election in November 2016. Source: Modern Ghana

    It’s a fascinating situation, and one we’ll be watching with interest – even if the data that would allow for a similar campaign doesn’t exist here in the UK.

    Edited to add: Here’s Odekro’s more in-depth blog post on the matter.

    Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

  5. An online Freedom of Information service – for offline users

    Next time you sit down at your computer to find out some information, remember that things aren’t quite so simple everywhere.

    A new Freedom of Information website launches in Liberia today, hoping for success despite the fact that many in the country have little or no access to the internet. If the idea of running an email-based requesting system under such circumstances sounds slightly ambitious, read on to see just how iLab Liberia will make it work, in collaboration with the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition, and funded by the Making All Voices Count project.

    The Liberia Freedom of Information Request Platform – InfoLib – is the latest site to use our Alaveteli software. Like all Alaveteli sites, it will send requests for information to public authorities by email, while publishing both the requests and the responses online. In time, responses build into a public archive of information.

    Online services, offline

    So how do you run a site like this in a country with low internet penetration? With a little ingenuity and a knowledge of which effective networks already exist, it seems.

    The project will make use of an existing network of regional offices and training centres, set up by the Carter Centre and LFIC. In these hubs, staff have been trained up to submit and receive requests on behalf of citizens, and citizens have attended workshops on how FOI can benefit them. There’s no need for users to have access to a computer, or an understanding of how to use a website — there will be staff who can do it on their behalf.

    And they’ve also spent time training the Public Information Officers, or PIOs, on the use of technology to make responding to requests easier. iLab are also providing a similar service within Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where they already run successful computer and ICT training programmes for interested citizens.

    We’ve seen this offline-to-online approach with other projects. At the AlaveteliCon conference we heard from people running Alaveteli sites in Rwanda and Uganda, also areas with low internet access, and we’ve experimented in the past with a similar system to allow people to make FixMyStreet reports via SMS texts to a central office.

    Radio outreach

    In Liberia, almost everyone has access to a radio. Community radio stations are a part of daily life, and the main source of news for many.

    iLab Liberia will be putting out regular radio segments, explaining what FOI is and how you can use your rights under Liberian law to access information. They’ll also highlight the most interesting information that’s been released through the site. This approach should see FOI become an increasingly familiar topic, a right that everyone understands and knows that they have access to.

    We wish InfoLib the best of luck — and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how these initiatives work out.

     

    Image: Cameron Zohoori (CC)

     

  6. Bienvenida to two new Alaveteli sites

    Welcome to two new Freedom of Information websites now running on the Alaveteli platform: Derecho A Preguntar (Right To Ask) in Nicaragua, and QueremoSaber (We Want To Know) in Paraguay.

    Alaveteli is our software that makes it easy to set up and run an FOI website; with these two recent launches, it’s now powering 25 Freedom of Information sites all around the world.

    Both countries’ constitutions enshrine their citizens’ right to information from public authorities, but, just as here in the UK, that right isn’t always widely known. So for both sites the aim is to help increase awareness of FOI among citizens.

    In Nicaragua, Fundación Violeta B. de Chamorro set up their site with the aid of Hivos (and with hosting and development support from us). Paraguay’s TEDIC are the organisation behind QueremoSaber, and they’ve set it up with very little help from our side. Always good to know that can be done!

    As a side note, take a glance at both sites to see how thoroughly Alaveteli can be ‘skinned’ to each organisation’s own design preferences. In fact, you only have to cast you eyes over all 25 deployments to see how each has its own very distinct character. Derecho A Preguntar actually took the foundation of its design from Spain’s TuDerechoASaber, which is one of the great benefits of the Alaveteli community: the chance to share, in this case, not just support and advice, but a design template.

    We’re very glad to see these two sites up and running. Together with Alaveteli sites in Uruguay and Panama (where the government uses the platform for its official FOI provision), they’re helping bring better access to information to Latin America.

  7. We’ll be at the OGP Global Summit

    We’ll be at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit on October 27-29.

    It’s one of the biggest events of the year within our sector, focusing on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and innovation, so we know it’ll be a great chance to spread the word about our work, and catch up with friends from all over the world.

    We’re there with two main purposes.

    Launching our latest research

    On Wednesday 28th October at 4pm, Rebecca will be hosting a session titled Researching the Real-World Impact of Digital Democracy. The Open Knowledge Foundation will be joining us, to present recent research they’ve conducted into open data and data literacy.

    We’ll also be launching our own report on the demographics of civic tech users, highlighting how the kind of tools we make are used by different groups around the world, and the opportunities and challenges that this presents to civic technologists and open government advocates.

    Can’t make it to Mexico City? No problem: we’ll simultaneously be publishing the research here on the mySociety website. Yes, that’s right, we’re staging an international live link-up… in our own small way.

    Showcasing our software

    With so many people in one place, all with a very specific interest in our kind of work, we jumped at the chance to exhibit at the Open Fair. Paul and Gemma will be there, showcasing some of our projects and tools that promote transparency and help with parliamentary monitoring.

    We’re really looking forward to the event. If you’re going too, we hope you’ll come and say hello.

    Want to know who else is going?

    It’s always useful to know who’ll be around, so you can see who you want to catch up with. We’ve started this crowd-sourced spreadsheet: do feel free to add yourself.

     

  8. Apply for support and development help

    There are websites built on mySociety code in many countries across the world.

    If your country doesn’t already have one, perhaps you’re thinking of setting up a FixMyStreet site for your area, or maybe a Freedom of Information site run on Alaveteli?

    Possibly you’re looking at WriteInPublic or YourNextRepresentative.

    Whatever the site you’re planning, you’ll find it a lot easier with our support and development help.

    Our quarterly call for applications closes on October 30, so make sure you have yours in soon. Want to know exactly what’s involved? Start here.

     

    Image: Damian Gadal (cc)

  9. 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.

  10. 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)