Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.
As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’
Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.
We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.
But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.
If you want to help campaign
The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.
At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.
Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.
In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:
- Request to see the tender for the provision of cladding
- How missing and unaccounted-for people have been counted
- Details of insurance on the tower
- Numbers and demographics of tenants
- Income and repairs expenditure
- Details of the 2013 emergency fire test
- Date of the last fire test
- Further details on the cladding, fire alarm and sprinklers
If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.
Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea The council in which Grenfell Tower is situated
- London Fire Brigade The service which ran rescue and firefighting operations
- Kensington and Chelsea TMO The Tenant Management Organisation, or Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) which managed the tower
- Metropolitan Police
- All ALMOs (for those who wish to ask for information about other blocks)
- All Housing Associations Note that, unless publicly owned, housing associations are not subject to FOI; however they are included on the site for the reasons you will see at the top of each housing association’s page on WhatDoTheyKnow, like this one.
Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.
Lobby for change
Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.
If you want quick answers
Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.
If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:
- Cladding on other tower blocks – reassurance needed
- Is Katherine’s Court in Spring Boroughs similar cladding to Grenfell Tower
- High Rise blocks in Wood Vale
But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.
WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.
What we will be doing
We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.
Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.
*Unless covered by an exemption.
Millions of people reached for their phone on June 9, and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.
Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.
And the morning after, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:
We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.
Reaching people where they are
mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.
That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.
What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.
That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.
That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.
Facebook for engagement
You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.
Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.
mySociety behind the scenes
Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.
In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?
Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).
While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.
Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.
Would you say you’re pretty clued up about the political system in the UK? If you’re reading this blog, it’s fair to assume that you know a bit more about politics than the average bear.
But that’s not true of everyone who uses our sites, and that’s why we’ve put out a Beginners’ Guide to the General Election.
It’s in three short parts — each takes only 5 minutes or so to read — and they cover the background and timetable of the Election; how to make an informed vote; and finally the logistics of actually casting your ballot.
There’s also a summary countdown so you can make sure you’ve done everything you need to.
Think this is a bit simplistic? Through the emails we receive via User Support, we have a really immediate insight into the common questions, worries and misconceptions around UK politics. Some of them are complex and esoteric. Others make us realise that if we haven’t set out the basics, we’re failing in our aim of making democracy easier for everyone to understand.
Equally, if we step away from the mySociety bubble and dip into social media, it’s easy to see the level of confusion around the pending General Election. Questions I’ve seen recently on my local community’s Facebook page include:
Do we vote twice, once for Corbyn/May and once for our local MP?
You don’t have to join a party to vote for it, do you?
Can I vote in my neighbouring constituency to help my chosen party win, if they’re a dead cert in my own constituency?
These were the real spur towards writing a simple explainer. If you come across friends, family or workmates who have similar queries, we hope you’ll find it useful to share our beginners’ guide.
We work to make democracy easier for everyone to understand — and your contributions help us carry on doing so.Donate now
mySociety is funded in a variety of ways: our work is supported by the commercial services that we offer to councils and other organisations; by donations from individuals; and currently, in largest part, by grants from an array of philanthropic funders.
We were delighted to receive news recently that the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation will continue to support us — and not only to support our research activities, as they have generously done for the last two years, but with a new grant of $1.2m over three-years that will help fund our core operational costs.
This is enormously welcome, and a timely acknowledgement of our efforts to build the evidence base around civic tech, not least as we continue to keep all the various mySociety plates spinning across our work in our three practice areas: Democracy, Freedom of Information and Better Cities.
On the eve of our third The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Florence, it’s great to know that this generous sum will ensure that we can continue to support our research team, as we explore the role that such activities have in the creation of flourishing communities and how best we can extend the benefits of these approaches to more disadvantaged individuals and marginalised groups.
But we are well aware that we’ll also need to seek additional funding from elsewhere. Significantly, over the past five years our grant from the Omidyar Network has been a game-changer for mySociety: it has allowed us to expand our team, work with more partners around the world to help them run citizen-empowering sites, and launch our own new projects such as Every Politician and Alaveteli Pro.
Our Omidyar grant comes to an end early next year, and so despite the support of funders such as Hewlett it is essential that find new and additional sources of funding in order to continue our work at scale.
As we seek to find a sustainable business model for Civic Tech we will keep developing appropriate commercial models within each of our practice areas – the recent changes to our Better Cities team have meant that we’re in a good position to increase the proportion of our income that comes from our commercial services.
However even if we are successful in securing new commercial revenues, we’ll still face a funding gap, compounded by the delicate tightrope we’re forced to walk as we balance our commercial and charitable responsibilities.
And so, the next few months will be a period of exploration, for me and the team, as we investigate the best way to meet our objectives to hold power to account, more important than ever in such volatile and unpredictable times.
If you represent a funding organisation active in this space and are looking to better understand the role that digital has to play in supporting and enriching the lives of those in disadvantaged communities, do expect to hear from us – or rather than wait, please get in touch for a chat.
It’s that time of year again. Local elections are on the 4th of May and we have updated our boundary change checker. It also helpfully lets you know if your ward is not having elections (not that your author was unaware of course.)
On May 4th elections will be taking place across English, Welsh and Scottish councils as well as the the elections for the new ‘combined authority’ Mayors.
Ward boundaries are changing
You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.
But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.
There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve got the data that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.
You might have seen it in the Daily Mirror: the full extent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ legal costs, incurred while fighting the obligation to name the companies who participated in the Workfare scheme.
Workfare is a government program which required the unemployed to work for one of the participating organisations, in exchange for no pay other than their existing benefits — working out lower than the minimum wage.
It’s a story in which our site WhatDoTheyKnow is strongly involved. The original request for the list of companies participating in the Workfare scheme was made on the site back in January 2012 by user Frank Zola.
That request was refused, noting that the information was “being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf”.
As any WhatDoTheyKnow user is given the means to do, Zola referred the request to the Information Commissioner. They ruled in favour of the release.
The government were unforthcoming, however, and the matter was taken to tribunal and through the court of appeal. Zola continued to pursue the case doggedly as the government repeatedly questioned the ruling that the information must be released into the public domain. Their defence was that the companies and charities listed as participating in the Workfare scheme might suffer negative effects to their reputation and commercial viability, given the strong swell of public opinion against the scheme.
In July 2016, four and a half years after the request had first been made, the full list was finally disclosed, and can be seen on WhatDoTheyKnow here.
But the story doesn’t end there. More than one person, including the Mirror’s own reporters, wondered just how much had been spent by defendants on both sides of the legal tussle. In August another user lodged this request with the DWP and discovered that their costs amounted to £92,250.
Meanwhile, a similar request to the ICO reveals that their costs in defending the case used a further £7,931 from the public purse.
We highlight this story partly because it shows the value of persistence. WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to help users to understand their rights. If your request is refused, it makes it clear that you have the right to request an internal review, making that route less intimidating to those who don’t know the ropes. If you go on to the appeals process, we hope that having all previous correspondence online helps with that. Other users can also offer help and support via the annotations system.
In this case though, we think many would have been deterred once the matter had been referred to the higher courts, and we congratulate everyone concerned for sticking to their guns and getting this information out into the public domain.
In a further twist, it’s perhaps worth relating that a few weeks ago, the supermarket Sainsbury’s contacted the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team and asked us to remove their name from the list of organisations who took part in Workfare, since “a small number of our stores did participate in the government’s Work Experience programme but this was not company policy”. We decided not to comply with this request.
The FixMyStreet codebase is used all over the world by people running versions of the site for their own country or jurisdiction. This week, we’re proud to announce the release of FixMyStreet version 2.0.
This version contains a wide array of new features that benefit FixMyStreet sites’ users, administrators, and the officials who receive reports. They include elements that the UK FixMyStreet was the first to trial, such as nicer-looking HTML emails for users and authorities, the ability to filter reports by multiple states and categories, a new admin user system with graduated permissions, and various bugfixes and development improvements.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts over on fixmystreet.org/blog/, examining the changes in detail. If you run a FixMyStreet site, or you’re just interested in coding and technical issues, you may find them of interest. Meanwhile, here’s the broad overview.
New front-end features
HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.
State/category filtering and sorting of list pages: When viewing a list of reports, you can now filter and sort them in pretty much any way you choose, including sorting by most- or least-recently updated, newest or oldest, or most commented. You can also select multiple categories or states (e.g. “fixed”).
Pretty area highlighting on body pages: The highlighting of areas on a body page has been inverted, so that the unimportant parts of the map are shaded and you can interact more easily with reports on the page.
- Users can now update their own email address This was a frequent request from users and we’re glad to report that they can now do it themselves on their account page.
Performance improvements: When looking at reports from a list page, the other report pins stay visible so that it is easier to switch between them. The report itself is being pulled in behind the scenes, meaning the whole page does not need to reload. The map no longer extends underneath the sidebar and header, which makes things easier, and a scroll wheel can now zoom the map in and out.
Making privacy options clearer: The reporting form has been separated into public and private sections, to make it clearer which parts of what you provide will be made visible on the site.
Showing the relevant recipient: If you live in an area where there’s more than one body, the category you pick normally dictates which body we send your report to. Now, when you select the category we update the name of the body given at the top of the report page, if we know that the report will be sent there.
New admin user system
Admin users can now use the same log-in right across the site – whether they’re making a report like a standard user, or logging in to make edits and moderate the site.
In the past, the distinction between admin and other users was black and white. As an admin user, you had access to every part of the site, but users can now be given individual permissions for various layers of access. These include:
- Proxy users This layer grants the ability to create a report or update on behalf of a body, or as another user. We envisage this being useful in a body’s contact centre, where they receive a report over a phone and enter it into FixMyStreet as that user;
- Report editors Giving the power to edit a report’s category, state, or location. If the admin user changes the category, and that change means that a different body is now responsible for the report, it will be re-sent;
- List makers, who can compile their own shortlist of reports they wish to go and inspect. This may be useful for a contractor or team who wishes to compile the day’s tasks;
- Quick responders These users have access to response templates, allowing them to edit and publish templated updates;
- Prioritisers These users may set different priorities on reports;
- Trusted users A simple reputation system, which e.g. potentially lets reports from trusted users be actioned more quickly.
The admin report edit form has also been greatly improved, including a map to update a report’s location (and re-sending the report if the body changes), and much tidier layout.
Bugfixes and development changes
Bugfixes include updating the top-level domain (TLD) list for email validation, hiding authorities which don’t exist any more on the all reports page, and fixing the previously-broken photo preview display after form submission. We have dropped support for Internet Explorer 6.
If you’re a re-user of the codebase, there are a number of changes that will hopefully help you out. See the extended version of this blog post on fixmystreet.org for more details.
- HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.
Some journalists focus on very specific areas in their use of FOI.
Dániel G. Szabó is an editor on Hungary’s Atlatszo Oktatas, a blog hosted on the major news outlet Atlatszo, and run largely by students. He revealed how FOI has been the key to exposing corruption in the country’s student unions.
It’s a blog focusing on corruption in higher education in Hungary, with a very heavy reliance on freedom of information requests and the analysis of the data acquired through FOI.
Hungarian student unions, where future political elites learn the basics of democracy, are infected with corruption and our blog works to reveal it.
We established the national jurisprudence on the accountability of student unions: courts ruled in our cases for the first time that student unions are to respond freedom of information requests and their expenditures should be transparent.
We sued many state-financed and also religious schools, and tracked the fate of several million euros spent by student union officials who are in their twenties. Without freedom of information laws and court rulings, the data on these funds would have never came to light.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Image: Bicanski (CC-0)
Today is International Right to Know Day! 2016 is also the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information and we’ve been marking these two facts all week with insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.
We began by asking Katalin to tell us about a memorable story that had been written with the aid of FOI.
The Museum of the Fine Arts in Budapest lent 10 antique paintings to a company tied to the PM’s personal advisor Arpad Habony.
The value of the paintings was HUF 400 million (~ GB £1.06 million) but the company paid only HUF 150,000 (~ GB £400) per month for them, and they hadn’t insured the paintings either.
We filed a lawsuit because the museum refused my request to publish information on where the paintings were.
After a year and a half in court we won the case, and the museum had to publish the information that during the whole lending period the paintings were in a private apartment where the PM’s advisor is a frequent visitor.
After my article was published the Minister of Culture issued a written notice to the director of the museum because he hadn’t asked for his permission for the loan. The director of the museum later admitted he was on friendly terms with the PM’s advisor. He was the best man at Habony’s wedding which was held at the museum. Habony wasn’t charged any rental fees.
What’s the significance of FOI in your opinion?
Freedom of Information is important because citizens have the right to know what, why, how and at what costs are things happening in the country where they live and work.
The state spends their taxes, therefore it is right to expect it to operate in a transparent way. And if someone knows they can be checked up on at any time, they will pay attention to what they do.
The right to information is a foundation of democracy, a check on power, and it pays an important role in fighting illegal activities and corruption.
What has Freedom of Information meant to you, as a journalist?
FOI is very important for investigative journalism.
If contracts of public spending weren’t open to public, many corruption cases would never be revealed. The Hungarian government has amended the FOI law several times in the past few years, and always in the negative direction.
Each time they limit the data that falls under the scope of the FOI Act, so that they can keep dubious affairs secret. This causes the risk of corruption to rise even higher, and our work has become even more challenging.
When the right to information is wide, and public spending is transparent, it’s much easier to notice suspicious cases.
Do you consider FOI to be a vital tool for the future?
It’s very important to apply FOI in as many places and as widely as possible. If there’s no FOI, there’s no democracy.
If we let political interests become more important than FOI we will end up in a dictatorship. The task and interest of the non-governmental organisations is to check on power, and this is only possible with freedom of information.
We have to stand up for it everywhere, every time.
Read the next installment to learn how a journalist in Croatia has used FOI.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Image: KovacsDaniel CC BY-SA 3.0
Today we hear from Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s Freedom of Information specialist.
Since 2005 I and my colleagues in the BBC have used FOI as the foundation for certainly hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands, of news stories and investigations at national and regional levels, across a wide range of topics — health, education, policing, environment, transport, foreign policy, and so on.
This has included revelations on important issues from staff shortages in A&E departments to how officials wrongly dismissed predictions about levels of Eastern European immigration, from which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests to the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from schools, from the cost of policing football games to the identities of individuals who have turned down honours.
Journalism is based on asking people questions, but of course much of the time there’s no guarantee you will actually get them answered.
Freedom of information is a rare and valuable tool because it provides a legal right to some information — a right that can be enforced when necessary by independent bodies, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal. And that means FOI provides the power to obtain certain material in the public interest that otherwise could not be squeezed out of reluctant public authorities.
FOI has made a crucial difference to what the media can find out and what the public knows about what central and local government and the public sector is doing.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.