Does publishing a correspondence with MPs make it more likely that promises will be upheld, and citizens’ voices heard? Thanks to a piece of software we’ve just installed on a partners’ site, we may be about to find out.
As you may know, mySociety supports several partners’ projects worldwide: one of these is People’s Assembly, which, like our own TheyWorkForYou, makes it easier for citizens to find out who their representatives are and what they’re doing in Parliament.
PMG, who run the site, saw the potential of the Open Source WriteInPublic software, which was made by our friends in Chile Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente. Like mySociety’s own UK tool WriteToThem, WriteInPublic allows users to easily contact their representatives; where it differs is that the whole correspondence is published online. It’s a way of holding representatives to account, and making sure that promises or assertions are not forgotten.
Messages to MPs
Here in the UK, of course, MPs only deal with correspondence from their own constituents, but in South Africa, citizens may legitimately write to any MP. Messages are far more frequently about policy rather than personal issues, which might go some way to explaining why a WriteInPublic tool targeting MPs is a more viable prospect than it might be, say, in the UK.
PMG are yet to promote the tool through their newsletter and social media channels, but of course, users are discovering it for themselves on the homepage. In the five weeks since launch, more than 270 messages have been sent to MPs. These can be seen on the MPs’ pages, in a new ‘messages’ tab: here’s an example.
The new tool doesn’t just invite users to write to their MPs directly; People’s Assembly now sports two invitations on its homepage: one to write to an MP, and another to contact a Committee.
PMG have previously had some success in surveying their users over key issues of party funding: the survey results were sent to a sitting Committee, and the chairman reported that they were “very helpful for the Committee’s discussions” and were “used as a reference point to gauge public opinion especially where discussions were deadlocked”.
The group are keen to extend this kind of engagement, and this second tool allows citizens to send a message to a Committee dealing with specific issues such as public works or the police. PMG are planning to continue surveying their users, while also pointing them at the tool as a way of getting public input into the bill-making process.
In the spirit of Democratic Commons, the underlying contact data for the MPs tool (though not the Committees one) is also now being used by Wikidata and our EveryPolitician project, so it’s freely available for anyone to use. For us it’s a win-win when data can not only serve an immediate purpose, but will also go on to provide a resource for anyone else who needs it.
The latest installation of our Alaveteli software, OPRAmachine, is an interesting new use of the platform. Rather than covering a whole country, as most of the other Alaveteli installations around the world do, it services just a single US state.
OPRAmachine, which launched in October, allows citizens to request information from state and local governmental agencies in New Jersey, under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
We asked Gavin Rozzi, the local journalist who has built and runs OPRAmachine, about the site and its impacts so far:
Why did you decide to set up OPRAmachine?
I developed an interest in New Jersey’s Freedom of Information law in the course of my work as an independent journalist. I created OPRAmachine because there is a void in our state for a statewide Freedom of Information portal.
Historically, New Jersey has gained a reputation as a state with excessive spending on state and local government, along with an enduring “culture” of political corruption, as defined by The New York Times.
I have found that in all too many cases, a lack of transparency and compliance with OPRA disclosure requirements has gone hand in hand with instances of government mismanagement and corruption at the state and local level, some of which have been publicised over the years.
While working in my capacity as an independent journalist, I began making extensive use of the OPRA law in order to study the activities of local governments in New Jersey. I became very familiar with the process and the how the law is effective at bringing about vitally needed transparency through the right it gives citizens to obtain public records.
A year ago, we helped Belgian group Anticor launch the Alaveteli site for Belgium, Transparencia.be, and so far it’s been an incredible success. Since launch, the site’s had almost 60,000 visitors and over 375,000 page views— that’s unusually high for an FOI site in its infancy — and they’ve even brought about a change in local FOI law. So how exactly have Anticor achieved so much in such a short time?
We chatted to Claude, a key member of the Transparencia team, to learn more, and the first thing we discovered was that the stellar visitor numbers were actually news to him. That might give us a clue as to one factor in their success: they’ve been far too busy to check their site analytics!
Fortunately we keep track of traffic on all our partners’ sites (where we have permission to do so), and we were glad to be able to pass on the good news. That done, we were keen to ask what exactly brought so many people to the site — and to see what tips other Alaveteli sites might be able to pick up so that they can enjoy the same level of success. (more…)
Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.
Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.
A platform for consumer complaints
The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.
Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.
As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?
Probing travel expenses
Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.
If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.
The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.
That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.
Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.
Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.
The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.
We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).
We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.
But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.
In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.
We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.
While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.
mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.
We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.
International Women’s Day seems like a good time to check in on our project Gender Balance, the crowdsourcing website that invites users to help gather gender data on the world’s politicians.
As you may recall, our aim was not simply to present top-level numbers: data already existed that allows us to, say, understand which legislatures have the most even-handed representation, genderwise.
No, Gender Balance seeks to go more in-depth: by attaching gender data to individual politicians, and making that data available via structured datasets, we hope to allow for more subtle comparisons to be made.
For example, researchers may like to test theories such as, ‘do women vote differently from men?’, or ‘do women politicians make different laws around childcare?’ — or a whole host of other questions, all of which can only be answered when gender data relates to specific public figures, or when it is viewed in combination with other data.
The data that is collected when you play Gender Balance goes, with data from other sources, into EveryPolitician, our project that seeks to provide structured, downloadable, open information across all the world’s legislatures.
Not right away, mind you. To ensure that the data really is accurate, we make sure that each politician on Gender Balance is presented to at least five different players, all of whom give the same answer, before we consider it verified.
EveryPolitician currently contains data for about 73,000 politicians in total. In some cases, that data came to us along with a trusted gender field, so we don’t need to run that through the Gender Balance mill, but the majority of parliamentary sites don’t provide this data.
We can sometimes obtain that information from other sources, but Gender Balance has been invaluable in filling in lots of the gaps. Thanks to our players, it has already provided us with gender information for over 30,000 politicians (and in some cases, pointed out discrepancies in the data we obtained from elsewhere).
There’s still plenty to go, though, if you’d like to help; and, as elections happen around the world, Gender Balance will continue to refresh with any politicians for whom we can’t find trusted gender data. As we speak, approximately 22,000 politicians still need sorting.
That might sound like quite a lot, but each politician need only take seconds — and every little helps. So, if you’d like to help contribute a little more gender data, just step this way.
Image: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the valedictory session of the National Conference of Women Legislators in Parliament House CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
We recently explained how to use pre-written Freedom of Information requests for a campaign. We’re glad to see this being used by AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site for Europe.
Today, AskTheEU launches a campaign to request the travel expenses of EU Commissioners — and they are calling on the public to help submit a total of 168 requests.
No matter what your feeling are towards the EU (let’s not even go there), we hope that everyone is in favour of transparency. AskTheEU’s campaign follows the discovery from a request that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent €63,000 on an air taxi to Turkey for the G20 summit. Naturally, they were keen to know whether this level of spending is replicated across the organisation.
After a two-year battle, AskTheEU’s parent organisation Access Info has established that the European Commission will provide information on Commissioner’s travel expenses, but only in two-month bundles.
They’ve already made a start: after submitting legal appeals and new requests, Access Info won access to a handful of documents about the travel expenses of five Commissioners: these can be seen here.
But there’s plenty more to discover, and that’s where the general public comes in. Thanks to the pre-written requests function, all the hard work is already done: it’s just a matter of picking one or two time periods and submitting the already-composed request.
Anyone can participate by going to the campaign website from today. All requests and responses will be made public on AsktheEU.
Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.
The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.
Well, we’re delighted to say we’ve been shortlisted for a grant. innovateAFRICA judges will take a few weeks to consider shortlisted applications, and winners will be announced on 30th January.
In the meantime, we thought we’d ask the project’s coordinators, Henry Maina from ARTICLE 19 East Africa and Louise Crow from mySociety, to describe the project in a bit more detail and explain why they think it’s so important.
What is the Alaveteli Professional project?
Louise: Alaveteli Professional is a new toolset that we are currently building as a companion service to our existing Alaveteli software. Alaveteli is mySociety’s open-source platform for making public freedom of information (FOI) requests to public bodies.
Alaveteli Professional will provide journalists and those who use FOI in their work with extra functionality and training to ease the process of raising, managing and interpreting FOI requests, which can be a very time consuming and overwhelming task. This is so that they can spend their valuable time on creating more high-impact journalism and research that holds public authorities to account.
Why bring the Alaveteli Professional project to Kenya?
Henry: The project will enable more Kenyan journalists to utilise one critical tool in their armoury: namely the Freedom of Information law enacted on 31st August 2016. It will also complement our earlier training of 25 journalists on the FOI law.
Louise: innovateAFRICA funding will allow us to bring our newly developed toolset to the Kenyan context. The toolset will have already been tried and tested by journalists in the UK and Czech Republic, so we’ll use examples of how these European journalists have successfully used the platform to generate stories in our trainings with Kenyan media. Simply building these tools is not, on its own, enough. For this reason, the Alaveteli Professional project in Kenya will also involve refining the tools for the Kenyan context, the training of journalists, the creation of support materials and the provision of direct assistance in making and analysing requests.
From ARTICLE 19’s experience of training Kenyan journalists on the new FOI law, how will the Alaveteli Professional project help them with their work?
Henry: ARTICLE 19 has trained journalists on the Freedom of Information laws in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. In all our past training, we created manual request protocols and follow-up required making telephone calls. The Alaveteli Professional project will help most journalists to easily file, track and share information about information requests in an easy to engage, review platform.
Why is it so important for journalists and citizens alike to hold authorities to account in Kenya?
Henry: First, journalists and citizens are keen to understand why and how their public servants and officials take decisions. Second, citizens have a right to participate in the management of public affairs and effective engagement is only possible if the citizens are well informed.
Will the project also benefit Kenyan citizens who aren’t journalists?
Louise: Yes. Providing journalists with the extra toolset requires us to first install a standard version of Alaveteli. Therefore, alongside citizens in 25 other countries in the world, Kenyan citizens will be able to use the platform to easily send requests to public authorities, or, as all responses to requests are published on the site, browse already-released information.
Citizens will also benefit even if they don’t use the site at all: they’ll benefit from news stories that expose corruption and mismanagement or missing funds and so on, and thus hold those in power to account.
What impact will the project have on Kenyan information officers/civil servants?
Henry: The project is likely to have great impact on Kenyan information officers and public officials. First, it will offer an objective platform to recognise and reward civil servants that enhance access to information as they will be able to manage requests more efficiently. Second, given the trend in questions, officers will be aware of the information that they can and should proactively disclose to lessen individual requests. Third, it will bolster ARTICLE 19’s ongoing work of training information officers that seeks to help them better understand the law and their obligations under it. Four, most of the government decisions will gain traction with citizens as there will be publicly available information on why and how such decisions were arrived at.
What lasting impact do you hope the project will achieve?
Henry: The Kenyan government will be more transparent and accountable, journalists will be more professional and their stories more credible and factual, allowing the country to entrench democratic values.
Louise: As with all our Alaveteli projects, we hope the project will amplify the power of Freedom of Information and open government, by giving a broad swathe of citizens the information they need to hold those in power to account, and to improve their own lives.
How you can help
So there you are — a little more detail on why we hope to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya. We hope you can see the value as much as we can! If so, and you’d like to help support the project, please do tweet with the hashtag #innovateAFRICA: every such public show of support brings us a little closer to winning the grant.
Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.
What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.
Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.
Getting it out in the open
Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.
It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.
At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.
Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.
Finding the stories
Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.
Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).
For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.
The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.
Open data brings change
The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.
Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:
- The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files — more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
- In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
- The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
- The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.
So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.
It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.
If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.