Should you be able to request information from private companies who perform the public function of running prisons? How about independent schools which receive public funding?
Such questions were at the heart of a consultation from the Scottish Government last year, which asked whether the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act of 2002 should be extended to cover more bodies. These were:
- Contractors who run privately-managed prisons
- Providers of secure accommodation for children
- Grant-aided schools
- Independent special schools
The WhatDoTheyKnow team responded to the consultation with arguments in favour of the extension of the Act to cover all such bodies: you can read the team’s full response here (including an explanation of why bodies which are not subject to the FOI Act have sometimes been added to the site).
We’re glad to say that the consultation committee were seemingly in accord with those views, and all the bodies consulted on will become subject to the Scottish FOI Act from 1 September 2016 (subject to Scottish parliamentary process). In their response, which can be viewed on the consultation page, WhatDoTheyKnow were mentioned in relation to private prison contractors:
We also note the response from WhatDoTheyKnow (…) who strongly supported extension to private prison contractors given their view that the detention of individuals in custody under order or sentence of the courts was undoubtedly a public function.
Meanwhile, we await developments on the UK Freedom of Information consultation, which we also submitted to. Apparently they are analysing feedback and will be hearing oral evidence from some parties next week, with an intention ‘to report as soon as possible after these sessions’. So, not long now.
If the idea of getting up and going to the same old job in 2016 is beginning to seem like an unappealing prospect, then you should know that we are looking for a Systems Administrator.
Working at mySociety is a bit different from your average job, as we tried to convey in this video. We work mainly from home (or the workspace of your choice), meeting up at regular intervals across the UK. Hours are very flexible. We’re a small, super-friendly bunch of people who like talking tech.
And then there’s the actual work. It does good in the world. That certainly gets us out of bed in the mornings.
You can see all the details of the position here. You’ll need experience of Linux server administration, scripting, Puppet and Nagios, and your main duties will be ensuring security and integrity of our servers, maintaining our infrastructure, and basically keeping all the plates spinning nicely.
If that sounds up your street, everything you need for your application is here.
And if not, do us a favour, and pass it on.
If you’re wondering what a year in Civic Tech looks like, well, here’s the answer:
plenty of coding, video calls with partners around the world, the occasional conference, and tea. Lots of tea.
Oh, and then there’s the annual treat of posing for the team photo on a windy winter’s day. That’s us, above. Damp. Cold. Still believing in the transformative power of digital technologies.
We bundled it all together, with plenty of stats, a couple of jokes, and tweets from some of our happy users.
Here’s the result. Sit back and enjoy the mySociety Year in Review, 2015.
If you’ve read our recent blog posts, you’ll know that Freedom of Information is under threat in the UK, and we have until just 20 November to oppose restrictions to our rights under the Act.
One easy way to help fight these restrictions is to write to your MP, which of course you can do via WriteToThem.com.
Why not do it right now? It will only take a few minutes.
We always recommend using your own words when you contact an MP (and here’s why), but if you need a little inspiration, here are some themes you could use as a starting point:
- FOI does incur a cost but it also brings great benefits. Have you used the Freedom of Information act, personally or at work? How has it benefited you or others?
- Freedom of Information should be available to everyone, not just those who have the wherewithal (and technical ability) to make a paid request.
- Measures which make it harder to obtain information would allow public authorities to avoid scrutiny.
- The commission is predisposed to find in favour of restrictions: it is partly made up of people who have stated their opposition to FOI, and has only been asked to examine restrictions.
- There are other possible solutions, like the proactive disclosure of information, which would ease the burden on authorities and lower costs—and still keep the right to information intact.
- When restrictions such as these have been introduced abroad, dramatic falls in the number of people requesting information have been seen. This is a loss for all of society: holding our public bodies to account is one of the foundations of a functioning democracy.
- Information held by public authorities is information which already belongs to us, and for the creation of which we have paid through our taxes.
- Journalists use the FOI Act as it stands to bring to light stories of corruption, malpractice, cover-ups and incompetence—most of which would never have become public knowledge without the powers the FOI Act affords them.
Still lost for words? You’ll find more points in our last blog post.
mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is run by a team of highly dedicated, unpaid volunteers. Between them, they have a great understanding of the FOI law in this country, as well as a unique insight into the type of information that it has brought into the public domain.
In the light of the current threat to FOI, the WhatDoTheyKnow team will be submitting a formal response to the cross-party commission on Freedom of Information. Below are some of the reasons why they oppose the proposed restrictions to the UK’s FOI Act.
If you agree with them (or perhaps you are a WhatDoTheyKnow user and you feel that these statements ring true in your own case), see our previous blog post which outlines four easy ways in which you can help protest against these restrictions.
On the need to cut costs: “Information released via Freedom of Information responses is used to inform debate and scrutiny at all levels from local community meetings, through local council chambers, to the House of Commons. Our democratic system does cost money: elections, councils, Parliament are all expensive. Freedom of Information helps ensure we get value for that money, and helps our democracy function, by enabling deliberations and decisions to be well informed.”
“Money spent responding to Freedom of Information requests needs to be considered in the context of wider public spending. In 2012 it was reported that Staffordshire County Council had spent £38,000 in a year responding to Freedom of Information requests. The then Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, commented: From this I can see that oversight by citizens and journalists cost only £38,000 from a yearly total budget of £1.3bn. I think it is fantastic that Staffordshire County Council can provide such information for only 0.002 per cent of its operating budget.”
On reducing the burden for public authorities: “We would be happy to see public bodies engaging with requestors, proactively offering advice and assistance, and suggesting ways a requestor can be satisfied while minimising effort required by a public body. Public bodies assisting requesters by explaining how they hold information and how a request could best be formulated in the interests of both requester and public body is all too rare. There appears to be a significant opportunity to improve the functioning of our access to information regime though a change in culture and mindset in this area.”
Note: Not only were these changes outruled, but WhatDoTheyKnow got a nice mention in the process. See more in our follow-up blog post.
Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.
This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:
- You’d be charged for making a request
- Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
- You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
- The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
- The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.
You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.
Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.
What you can do
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation
Why these restrictions matter
Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it
If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.
It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).
It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.
We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries
Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.
In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.
In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.
Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.
The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.
Government ministers could pick and choose what they release
Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.
If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.
The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.
We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.
Public authorities are funded by us, the public
If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.
We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.
If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.
How will you help?
These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.
*A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.
We’re looking for stories for our annual report, and we want to hear about any changes—big or small—that you’ve seen from using one of our sites.
If we go ahead and use your story in our annual report, we’ll thank you with one of our lovely snuggly mySociety hoodies and no doubt we’ll throw in a few stickers, too.
Here (left) is what those hoodies look like, ably modeled by ace volunteer Andy.
So have a think:
Perhaps you’ve made an improvement to your community through FixMyStreet: it could be something as small as getting some litter cleared away, or as big as campaigning for a new road layout.
You might have used TheyWorkForYou to understand how your MP voted.
Maybe you used that information to help you decide how to vote this year.
Have you discovered information on WhatDoTheyKnow? Let us know what you did with that knowledge.
Maybe you used WriteToThem to ask for help from your elected representatives, or to encourage them to think about an issue that’s important to you.
Here’s what to do
Submit a video (45 seconds max) or a photo with text (150 words max) or just text (150 words max) explaining exactly how you got things changed with one of the mySociety sites.
Videos should be landscape format. We’re not looking for high production values: just you, talking into your camera phone is fine! Tell us which site you used, and what got changed. When you’re happy with your video, please upload it to YouTube or a similar video hosting site, and send the link to email@example.com.
Photo with text
Send us a photo of yourself. It can be a simple portrait, or you might like to include a relevant feature, like a pothole you got filled in, or a community project one of our sites contributed to in some way.
Then add a few words to explain which site you used, and what got changed. Please send your text as an email along with your photo as a jpg attachment, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us which site you used, and what got changed, in an email to email@example.com.
Please have your submission with us by November 15th.
And this is the small print
Submission of a video, photo or text constitutes an agreement that we may use it, and your name, in mySociety’s annual report 2015. This report is sent to our friends, supporters, funders and partners, and also publicised through mySociety’s various social media channels. We reserve the right to edit your text, but where we do so it will be for accuracy or clarity and not to change the underlying meaning.
We may also upload your video to the mySociety YouTube channel.
We may not use every submission. Those chosen for inclusion will receive a mySociety hoodie and stickers.
— Ian Chard (@Flupsybunny) September 30, 2015
Sadly, we’ll be saying farewell to our current SysAdmin Ian shortly. We’d like our websites to keep running after his departure, ideally, so we’re recruiting for a replacement.
A replacement who can keep our servers secure, maintain our back-ups infrastructure, and resolve performance bottlenecks, among other daily challenges.
If that sounds like you, or someone you know, you can find the full details here.
What’s it like working for mySociety, you ask? Take a look at this page.
My last blog post ran through the history of our ‘rate the view’ site ScenicOrNot.
I was expecting to wrap up with a final paragraph describing its graceful retirement. But no — it turns out that, even as I wrote, emails were going back and forth to secure a whole new career for ScenicOrNot.
Here’s what its new owners at the Warwick Business School have to say:
Does living in picturesque areas make you feel healthier? Urban planners and think tanks have puzzled over this question for years, but have been held back by a lack of data on the beauty of our environment.
We were immensely excited to discover the data being collected by ScenicOrNot, as it gives us a crucial opportunity to finally get some answers to this age-old question.
Our initial analyses of the ScenicOrNot data suggest that people living in more scenic environments report better health, even when taking variables such as income and greenspace into account. These results suggest that the beauty of our everyday environment might have more practical importance than has previously been realised.
We’ve written a paper describing these analyses, which is currently under review. Keep in touch with us via Twitter (@thoughtsymmetry or @thedatascilab) and we’ll let you know when the paper is published.
We’re very honoured that mySociety are passing the ScenicOrNot site into our care. We’re excited about having the opportunity to customise the site and gather more data for our research, and we’d also love to expand this work to other countries. Stay tuned to hear what comes next!
We’re excited too, of course — and really pleased that ScenicOrNot has been redeployed in such a useful way.
The good news for you is that you can carry on rating photos for scenicness over at the site’s new home, all in the knowledge that you are increasing our understanding about the correlation between health and our environment.
Oh, and meanwhile: how would you rate the view from your window? You might want to talk to your doctor about that.
Today is my last day and it seems appropriate to sign off with a blog post, 11 years and 5 months after the first one that I can find.
It feels too early to share any deep thoughts on what mySociety means, where we are with civic tech, what worked and what didn’t, what I learned as a founder and what we should all be focusing on next.
One of my many reasons for wanting to move on was to regain the kind of mental freshness and detachment that comes from having fewer responsibilities for a while. So I promise that I’ll think and write more.
Follow me on Twitter if you want to, or add your email address to my new notification list if you just want a ping when I’ve written something. Or mail me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about anything.
My main reason for writing today is to thank people. A lot of people gave up very significant portions of their lives to get mySociety to a point where it helps so many people in so many countries in so many different ways.
So I’ve written a huge list of thankyous. If you’re missing, ping me and I’ll thank you too 🙂
Thank you to:
Paul Lenz for his strength, energy, focus, morality, tolerance of my foibles, and his financial and legal skills that stop this happening to me.
Tim Morley for loving and caring for PledgeBank for so many years, and for bringing a little Esperanto to our lives. And for cooking.
James Crabtree for writing the original article that said that something like mySociety should exist, and for being a patient trustee from many timezones away
Tony Bowden for being the first person to try to help people outside the UK to benefit from the ideas and tools we’d built here, and for the miracle that is EveryPolitician (100+ countries, anyone?)
James Cronin for being the chair of trustees for so long, and doing so with a calm, kind level-headedness that I think would drive other charity CEO’s wild with jealousy. And for being such a key part of starting mySociety in the first place.
Mark Cridge for taking on the challenge of running mySociety, and for resisting the temptation to use me as a scapegoat for everything [n.b. this thanks may be retroactively repealed]
Ian Chard for keeping the server lights on, for making me believe I can do more with every day of my life, and for telling me about the British Library’s amazing online newspaper archive.
FOIMonkey for spotting when councils dump tons of private data out via accidental FOI. You are what other people mean by eternal vigilance.
Deborah Kerr for being eternally patient and kind to the users, even when they were taxing, and for doing super retreat organising on a shoestring.
Ganesh Sittampalam for a billion hours of patient FOI administration, helping make WhatDoTheyKnow the institution it is today.
Alex Skene for so much volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, for grown-up management advice that I took seriously, and for surprising me at the Olympics
Abi Broom for nothing*.
Richard Taylor for years of diligent volunteering on WhatDoTheyKnow, making us all laugh with his videos of council meetings, and being perhaps the most knowledgeable person about every vote in Parliament who has ever lived.
Adam MacGreggor for server cabinet wrangling at difficult moments.
Ben Nickolls for heading up such a happy, productive commercial team, and for helping me understand that £200 is an entirely reasonable sum to spend on bicycle pedals.
Owen Blacker for a lot of trustees meetings, and for always keeping us spiritually close to the digital rights world.
Ethan Zuckerman for helping me gain perspective, and for being my biggest fan in the USA.
Jen Pahlka for being an even bigger fan than Ethan, and for endlessly quoting me on stages around the world.
Sam Smith for early hacking, for running OpenTech, and for reminding me that chippiness always has a place.
Dave Whiteland for the stories, and for travelling far and wide to help people take advantage of our tools and learnings. And, on a personal note, for showing me what it means to be a truly good son.
Michal Migurski for making Mapumental so beautiful, and for bringing your tech skills to Code for America
Amandeep Rehlon for being the volunteer finance department before we had a finance department, and for giving me the unique pleasure of sending my expense receipts to the Bank of England’s financial crises department.
Bill Thompson for organising the first puntcon, where I first met Chris. And for giving feedback on the very earliest versions of the mySociety plan.
Etienne Pollard for helping at every stage, whether a drama hippy, a McKinsey suit, or a harried public servant.
Stephen King for, yes, representing our biggest funder, but also for being clear, friendly, and a quiet champion for mySociety. And for sometimes helping translate from Californian to English.
Alistair Sloan for being such a dedicated WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer that he once got the bus from Glasgow to London for a meeting.
Duncan Parkes for making Mapumental performant in the post-flash era, even when it looked like it might not be possible. And for the best retreat presentation ever.
Struan Donald for the puns, the deadpan one liners, and for making both FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou so much better.
Micah Sifry and Ellen Miller for making me unofficial members of the US civic tech family.
Eben Upton, now Raspberry Pi legend, who booked me a speaking gig in the Cambridge Microsoft Research labs which is where I first met Francis Irving and (I think) Chris Lightfoot.
Dan Jellinek for bringing together VoxPolitics with me and James Crabtree, which was the precursor to mySociety.
Janet Haven for the money. For her ‘massive thermonuclear powered bullshit detector’ [ht Tom Longley]. And, oh yes, for becoming a friend too.
Ayesha and Keith Garrett for design help on PledgeBank, and sysadmin skills, long ago.
Tim Jackson for taking a philanthropic punt on a wild idea, long ago, which worked.
Robin Houston for doing battle on a project you didn’t really love, but that was for the right purpose.
Pierre Omidyar for making all that money at eBay, and then deciding that we deserved some of it.
Tom Loosemore for hacking together our very first web presence, and for being a positive, confidence inspiring presence in good times and bad ever since.
Mike Bracken for the vital job of helping us get out first significant grant, and then years later for successfully smuggling mySociety values into government.
Richard Pope for being a ceaseless fount of new ideas, and for driving the first redesign of TheyWorkForYou.
Edmund von der Burg for showing that you can both be a charming coder, and capable of building an office out of a shipping container, with your own hands.
Julian Todd for realising that vote data in the UK parliament deserved clear, regular, semi-automated analysis to make it useful for most people, and then for making it real in PublicWhip. If history is fair it will note him as the inventor of modern vote analyses.
Helen Goulden for helping us navigate the tricky paths to government money, back when there was any.
Doug Paulley for blazing onto the scene as an amazing new WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Martin Wright for turning us from an organisation that sucked at design, to one that really rocks. And for his enduring love of Yo.
Stef Magdalinski for the name of the charity, and for trusting me with TheyWorkForYou
Nick Jackson for happy rats and research stats.
Jason Kitcat for the very first mySociety.org!
Matt Jones for mySociety’s logo, which is still going strong, albeit in a gently shaded new style.
Alex Smith for helping us through TV-driven load spikes with customarily despairing good humour.
Manar Hussain for diligent, challenging trusteeship that was always good humoured, and never afraid to bring in new ideas.
The public sector for being such a terrible employer of programming talent that it gave us both Matthew and Steve
John Cross for being a brilliant WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer.
Steve Day for being a brilliant, sensitive engineering manager, wise far beyond his age, all whilst riding a BMX.
Christoph Dowe for helping organise the series of Berlin-based conferences that first brought together Europe’s civic hackers, and which ultimately helped attract funding to the scene.
Liz Conlan for the coffee advice
Chris Mytton – for introducing the words ‘craft ales’ to mySociety’s internal discourse, for showing that not going to university has no impact on your ability to be either an amazing coder or a well rounded human being.
Steve Clift for being there to talk to about digital politics when nobody else was interested, and for loving Poplus into life.
Dave Arter for wrestling Mapumental into a truly beautiful state, for your Github robot, and for convincing me that Wales is disproportionately full of bright young coders.
Gareth Rees for helping make Alaveteli our most-used platform, and for bringing a little race-car glamour to our team.
Rebecca Rumbul for getting our new research programme of to a flying start, and for showing me that the art of creative swearing is never truly mastered
Jen Bramley for cheerfully travelling the world and making people feel that mySociety must be worth working with if everyone is so nice
Gemma Humphrys for bringing a tornado of efficiency to our events organisation, and for having absolutely no boundaries that I am aware of.
Rowena Young for being a person I could really moan to, when things got tough.
Myf Nixon for being our organisation’s voice, for looking after our users, and for making sure that we get noticed.
Tony Blair for starting a war that inspired Julian Todd to build PublicWhip, and much later for commissioning a petitions website that caused all sorts of fun and games.
Seb Bacon for making DemocracyClub happen in 2010, for starting the conversion of WhatDoTheyKnow.com into the generic Alaveteli, and for going off to OpenCorporates to make it harder for the b*&^&ds to get away with it.
Sym Roe for making DemocracyClub happen in 2015, and for giving a lot of his time to the cause of good political information in the UK.
Tim Green for being the new Chris Lightfoot
Tom Longley for giving us a no-nonsense introduction to how hard it was going to be to conduct successful partnerships in the developing world.
Mark Longair for making sure that technological excellence and human kindness are are the core of what we do.
Camilla Aldrich for the lungs
Angie Martin for giving all she could, for as long as she could.
Zarino Zappia for ceaseless energy and good humour, and for asking hilariously straight questions about why we made terrible design decisions previously
Karl Grundy, Kristina Glushkova and Mike Thompson for helping us grow a commercial team, over several years.
The vandal who repeatedly smashed up the phone booth on London’s Caledonian Road, and thus planted the idea for FixMyStreet
William Perrin for helping make government interested in data and tech before it was cool, and for virtually single-handedly starting the UK government’s work on Open Data. And for all the support and the ideas in his post civil service life.
Fran Perrin for the support, and for protecting me from William’s ideas.
Louise Crow for showing me what a technology leader really looks like.
Matthew Somerville for always standing up for the user, for making everything work, and for doing it all in a tenth the time expected. And for a hug when I needed it most.
Francis Irving for joining at the right time, for leaving at the right time, and being a monster of thoughtful product design and speedy, skilful implementation in between. For always being excited, and always wise.
Chris Lightfoot for giving me a brief, life-changing glimpse of what the raging, brilliant light of genius looks like. And being the person who introduced me to Anna.
Anna Powell-Smith for everything, everyday.
* Trust me, this is how she’d want it