1. Looking forward to Taipei

    It’s only a few days now before we’ll be in Taipei, hosting an extra special edition of TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference — or TICTeC@Taipei as it’s snappily being called.

    TICTeC@Taipei will be the headline event of Civic Tech Fest, Asia’s first ever festival celebrating all things Civic Tech. It’s also an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT), so TICTeC@Taipei attendees will also be able to attend the WCIT, and vice versa.

    We’re super excited about not only TICTeC@Taipei and WCIT, but the other events that are happening during the festival too, which include g0v’s legendary hackathon, the Code for All Summit, State of the Map Taiwan, and Wikimedia Taiwan’s 10th anniversary event. In fact, our only concern is that there will be just too much to choose from!

    We’re looking forward to reconnecting with friends and associates across the global Civic Tech scene, not to mention meeting new faces. It’s such a great opportunity to share ideas, learnings and experiences not just within our own community, but more widely with the WCIT crowd too.

    Attendees will be coming from all around the world: check out the CivicTechFest Google Group to get a snapshot of who will be there. We’re delighted that we’ve been able to provide some travel grants to individuals who wouldn’t have been able to come without support, and we’re really looking forward to meeting them.

    There is also time left to submit a proposal for the unconference part of TICTeC@Taipei. If you have a workshop idea, or want to share your Civic Tech story, you can propose an unconference session idea by filling out this form before 7th September. There will also be time to submit ideas in person on 11th September.

    Feeling a bit envious of all the anticipated fun? There’s still time to register for TICTeC@Taipei, so if you fancy coming to the biggest Civic Tech gathering of the year, get your tickets here!

    While we’re there, we’ll also be making a special announcement about TICTeC 2018. We’ll share it here as well, of course, so watch this space for more information!

  2. A new home for our research

    For the last few years mySociety’s research output has been living in its own little area of the main website. At the start this was fine, but as we’ve produced more research (which is good!) the website was not good at making clear what we had previously released and why you should read it (which is bad!).

    To fix that we’ve brought all our research reports, papers and blog post together in one place. We also wanted to take the opportunity to make our research easier to access. For all our research going back to 2015, we now have a nice, mobile-responsive, easy-to-read version, as well as a text and a kindle .mobi file to go along with that. In several cases papers that had been published externally were released by the publisher under a Creative Commons licence – meaning these could be converted to the new format.

    So have a look around the new site! Learn about Civic Tech Cities, or Who Benefits From Civic Technology.

    And don’t forget that you can sign-up for our research newsletter for exciting research updates!

    _

    Image: Nico Kaiser 

  3. TICTeC@Taipei: Agenda now online, early bird tickets still available

    As we shared back in April, this September we’ll be hosting an extra edition of our TICTeC research conference, in Taipei.

    TICTeC, or The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, is the Civic Tech sector’s only conference that’s dedicated to promoting and sharing research into the impacts of online technologies and digital democracy around the world, to share what works and (crucially) what doesn’t.

    TICTeC@Taipei will be the headline event at the Open Culture Foundation’s Civic Tech Fest,  a week-long festival featuring a series of conferences, workshops and hackathons related to open data and open government. And Civic Tech Fest itself is an official parallel event of the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT), one of the world’s largest gatherings of the IT industry.

    It’s a really unique opportunity to bring together researchers and practitioners from across the globe in Asia’s Civic Tech hub, and to showcase our sector’s initiatives to the wider IT industry.

    We’re delighted to announce that the TICTeC@Taipei agenda is now online. The conference will feature speakers from the Omidyar Network, UNICEF, the Web Foundation, government ministries of France and Taiwan, leading universities, and many more.

    Early bird tickets are still available until 21st July and registration includes entry to all Civic Tech Fest and WCIT events. We’ll even be having the TICTeC after party in the Taipei 101 building (the tallest building in the photo above), at Google’s Taipei offices. Pretty cool huh?

    Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity — book now!

    Image: sama093 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

     

  4. TICTeC 2017 in Florence: videos and slides

    How can we counter Fake News — and should we even try? Do big corporations have a moral duty to share their data for the betterment of the world? Why do petitions created by women get more signatures than those created by men?

    These are just a few of the questions posed — and answered — at TICTeC 2017.

    If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), you’ll be glad to know that you can now access videos of the key presentations, as well as interviews where delegates share their insights and specialist expertise. Where available, we’ve also shared speakers’ slides.

    You can see the whole lot on the TICTeC website, and as a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:

    And don’t forget: you can join us for a special extra TICTeC conference in September this year. We’ll be hosting TICTeC@Taipei as part of Asia’s first Civic Tech Fest, an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology. More details and how to register can be found at civictechfest.org.

  5. Civic Tech Cities: researching US government inhouse technologies

    Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.

    Civic Tech: whose job is it?

    Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?

    We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.

    But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.

    We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.

    A vital new area for research

    When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.

    Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.

    If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.

    It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?

    Civic Tech Cities

    Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.

    Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.

    The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.

    It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.

    Better tools make better policy

    Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.

    The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.

    Two-way learning

    Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.

    You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.

    Image: Jindong H

  6. Looking forward to Florence

    It’s just a few days now until our annual research event, TICTeC.

    The Impacts of Civic Technology conference is an opportunity for researchers, activists, funders, and all the other people that make up the ever-growing Civic Tech sector, to come together and learn from one another in two days of inspiring presentations and workshops.

    In between sessions, the odds are very much in favour of conversations with people whose area of expertise is precisely relevant to your own — that’s one of the primary reasons, attendees tell us, that they enjoy TICTeC so.

    And that’s before you even throw in the fact that we’ll be convening in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Florence, Italy.

    The agenda is looking great: you can see it here, and more details about the speakers are here. It’s always a sign of a good event when the team members putting the website together are already talking excitedly about which sessions they hope to attend!

    If all of that is making you wish you had booked a place, well, it’s not too late. There are a very few tickets left so if you act now, you could still be joining us in the Villa Vittoria for the highlight of the Civic Tech year. There are even a few free tickets available, so please email gemma@mysociety.org if you’re interested.

    If you can’t make it, don’t forget to follow proceedings on Twitter via the @mySociety Twitter page and via the #TICTeC hashtag. We’ll also be producing videos of the main plenary sessions which we’ll publish on the TICTeC website after the conference.

    Ci vediamo presto!


    Image: Villa Vittoria

  7. What I learned from 20,000 dog poops

    When working with data that you didn’t set out to gather you have to be careful to think about what the data actually means, rather than what it seems to be saying. As an example, one of the “interesting” side effects of FixMyStreet is a database of places people have reported dog poop (or “dog fouling” as it tends to be called academically). We now have over 20,000 locations across the UK where nature’s call has both been heard, and reported.

    My first thought when learning about this data was “that’s a lot of dog poop!” but it turns out 20,000 dog poops is not a lot of dog poop at all. There are an estimated 8.5 million dogs in the UK, assuming (on average) each one poops once a day, they’ll produce over 3.1 billion poops a year.

    So actually, 20,000 poops over nine years is nothing compared to the amount of pooping going on. But just because our data is a drop in the bucket doesn’t mean we can’t learn interesting things from it. The first question to ask is if we have a representative sample of where all this dog fouling is going on. The answer, sadly, is no. But the reasons for that answer raise further questions – which is interesting!

    When you map the location of dog poo complaints in England against the Index of Multiple Deprivation [1], you get this:

    FixMyStreet Dog Fouling Reports

    This tells us that reports about dog fouling are roughly parabolic – there are more in areas in the middle than those that are either very deprived or very not.

    This is interesting because when Keep Britain Tidy actually went out into the world and checked (p. 14), they found this:

    LEQSE Dog Fouling

    This graph tells a very different story, where dog fouling gets worse the more deprived the area. But why is this? And why doesn’t our data tell the same story?

    One reason we would expect more dog poop in the most deprived areas is that the most deprived areas are more urban. Taking the same IMD deciles and using the ONS’s RUC categories to apply a eight point ‘ruralness’ scale (where 1 is ‘Urban major conurbation’ and 8 is ‘Rural village and dispersed in a sparse setting’) lets us see the average ‘ruralness’ of each decile. While this reflects that deprivation is spread across urban and rural areas – the most deprived areas tend to be more urban.

    Ruralness vs IMD Decile

    As urban areas have fewer natural places to dispose of dog waste, and the most deprived areas are more urban, we would expect the most deprived areas to have more dog fouling.[2] We also know that measures that contribute to IMD scores (such as crime levels) are related to trust and social cohesion in an area.[3] When social cohesion is lower, we would expect more dog fouling because owners feel less surveyed and are less concerned with the opinion of neighbours. The real world increase reported by the Keep Britain Tidy survey supports these relationships.

    The drop off in our reported data compared to the real world can be explained by features of the general model for understanding FixMyStreet reports — some measures of deprivation are correlated with increased reports (because they relate to more problems) and others with decreased reports (because they hurt the ability or inclination of people to report). We would also expect areas with worse deprivation to have fewer reports because of disengagement with civic structures.

    Quickly checking the English dog fouling data (so only 17,103 dog poops) against the same model confirms that significant relationships exist for the same deprivation indexes as the global dataset with the largest effect size of a measure of deprivation being for health – as health deprivation in an area goes up, reports of dog fouling increase.

    What this tells us is that our dog data (and probably our data more generally) is clipped in areas of the highest deprivation. We’re not getting as many reports as the physical survey would suggest and so our data has very real limits in identifying the areas worse affected by a problem.

    This is a lesson in being careful about interpreting datasets you pick up off the ground – if you used this data to conclude the most deprived areas had a similar dog poop problem to the least deprived areas you would be wrong. Because we have an independent source of the real world rate of problems, we can see there is a mismatch between distribution in reports and reality. Using this independent data of ‘actual problems’ for one of our categories makes us more aware that there is negative pressure on reports in highly deprived areas.


    If you’d like to learn more about the history of dealing with dog poo on the street (and who wouldn’t want to learn more about that!) – I’ve very generously gone into more detail here.

    [1]: An index that combines thirty-seven indicators from seven domains (income, health, crime, etc) to provide a single figure for an area that is indicative of its level of deprivation relative to other areas.

    [2]:This is relative. Rural areas still have problems with bagged dog poo (“the ghastly dog poo bauble” hanging from branches – as MP Anne Main put it). There is also a risk to the health of cows from dog fouling in farmland – so there are unique rural dog poo problems.

    [3]: Ross et al. found “People who report living in neighborhoods with high levels of crime, vandalism, graffiti, danger, noise, and drugs are more mistrusting. The sense of powerlessness, which is common in such neighborhoods, amplifies the effect of neighborhood disorder on mistrust.”

    Header image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottlowe/3931408440/

  8. OGRX: sharing the best in Civic Tech research

    At the Impacts of Civic Technologies conference TICTeC last year, we were treated to a presentation on a resource for the Civic Tech research world. OGRX, the Open Government Research Exchange is a repository of digital, eGov and Civic Tech peer-reviewed and stand-out articles, out of GovLab NYU — you can see the in-depth presentation here.

    As one of the featured Editors of OGRX, mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul was recently invited to make her top five picks from the collection. As she explains, her selection runs from the “paper that should be read by all newcomers to the Civic Tech world” to the “important piece of literature that I take inspiration from when designing my own research projects”.

    Rebecca has this to say about the value of sharing other people’s research in the sector, and the benefits of OGRX:

    Rebecca Rumbul“The mySociety research team spends lots of time asking interesting questions about Civic Tech, and dreaming up ways to answer those questions, but one of the main things we do that is not so obvious is read about other people’s research. A LOT!

    “Before we start any new research project, we carefully review what others have done before us, thinking about what worked for them, what kind of experimental design they used, what other writers inspired their research, and what insights they were able to draw from their work. Learning about others’ research is one of the main parts of the job of researching the impacts of Civic Tech.

    “This is one of the reasons that we began the annual TICTeC conference: to give practitioners and researchers interested in the impacts of Civic Technology a genuine opportunity to learn, share and challenge each other in a safe space.

    “Alas, TICTeC only happens once a year, and outside of that, it can be tough to know where to go to find interesting, current and relevant research, especially if you don’t have university access to online journal articles.

    “That’s where OGRX really fills the gap. If you are thinking of submitting something for TICTeC and want some inspiration, or if you are just interested in accessing good quality and relevant content, why don’t you have a look around? You can also submit your own research!”

  9. FixMyStreet: Why do some areas report more than others?

    I’m just a few weeks into my position of Research Associate at mySociety and one of the things I’m really enjoying is the really, really interesting datasets I get to play with.

    Take FixMyStreet, the site that allows you to report street issues anywhere in the UK. Councils themselves will only hold data for the issues reported within their own boundaries, but FixMyStreet covers all local authorities, so we’ve ended up with probably the most comprehensive database in the country. We have 20,000 reports about dog poop alone.

    Now if you’re me, what to do with all that data? Obviously, you’d want to do something with the dog poop data. But you’d try something a bit more worthy first: that way people won’t ask too many questions about your fascination there. Misdirection.

    How does it compare?

    So, starting with worthy uses for that massive pile of data, I’ve tried to see how the number of reports in an area compares against other statistics we know about the UK. Grouping reports into ONS-defined areas of around 1,500 people, we can match the number of reports within an area each year against other datasets.

    To start with I’m just looking at English data (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have slightly different sets of official statistics that can’t be combined) for the years 2011-2015. I used population density information, how many companies registered in the area, if there’s a railway station, OFCOM stats on broadband and mobile-internet speeds, and components from the indices of multiple deprivation (various measures of how ‘deprived’ an area is, such as poor health, poor education prospects, poor air quality, etc) to try and build a model that predicts how many reports an area will get.

    The good news: statistically we can definitely say that some of those things have an effect! Some measures of deprivation make reports go up, others make it go down. Broadband and mobile access makes them go up! Population density and health deprivation makes them go down.

    The bad news: my model only explains 10% of the actual reports we received, and most of this isn’t explained by the social factors above but aspects of the platform itself. Just telling the model that the platform has got more successful over time, which councils use FixMyStreet for Councils for their official reporting platform (and so gather more reports) and where our most active users are (who submit a disproportionate amount of the total reports) accounts for 7-8% of what the model explains.

    What that means is that most reasons people are and aren’t making reports is unexplained by those factors. So for the moment this model is useful for building a theory, but is far from a comprehensive account of why people report problems.

    Here’s my rough model for understanding what drives areas to submit a significantly higher number of reports to FixMyStreet:

    • An area must have a problem

    Measures of deprivation like the ‘wider barriers to housing deprivation’ metric (this includes indicators on overcrowding and homelessness) as well as crime are associated with an increase in the number of reports. The more problems there are, the more likely a report is — so deprivation indicators we’d imagine would go alongside other problems are a good proxy for this.

    • A citizen must be willing or able to report the problem

    Areas with worse levels of health deprivation and adult skills deprivation are correlated with lower levels of reports. These indicators might suggest citizens less able to engage with official structures, hence fewer reports in these areas.

    People also need to be aware of a problem. The number of companies in an area, or the presence of a railway station both increase the number of reports. I use these as a proxy for foot-traffic – where more people might encounter a problem and report it.

    Population density is correlated with decreased reports which might suggest a “someone else’s problem” effect – a slightly decreased willingness to report in built-up areas where you think someone else might well make a report.

    • A citizen must be able to use the website

    As an online platform, FixMyStreet requires people to have access to the website before they can make a report. The less friction in this experience makes it more likely a report will be made.

    This is consistent with the fact that an increased number of slow and fast home broadband connections (and fast more than slow ones) increases reports. This is also consistent with the fact that increased 3G signal in premises is correlated with increased requests.

    Reporting problems on mobile will sometimes be easier than turning on the computer, and we’d expect areas where people more habitually use mobiles for internet access to have a higher number of reports than broadband access alone would suggest. If it’s slightly easier, we’d expect slightly more – which is what this weak correlation suggests.

    Other factors

    Not all variables my model includes are significant or fit neatly into this model. These are likely working as proxy indicators for currently unaccounted for, but related factors.

    I struggle, for instance, to come up with a good theory why measures of education deprivation for young people are associated with an increase in reports. I looked to see if there was a connection between an area having a school and having more reports on the basis of foot-traffic and parents feeling protective over an area – but I didn’t find an effect for schools like I did for registered companies.

    So at the moment, these results are a mix of “a-hah, that makes sense” and “hmm, that doesn’t”. But given that we started with a dataset of people reporting dog poop, that’s not a terrible ratio at this point. Expanding the analysis into Scotland and Wales, analysing larger areas, or focusing on specific categories of reports might produce models that explain a bit more about what’s going on when people report what’s going wrong.

    I’ll let you know how that goes.

    Image: Dave_S (CC-by/2.0)

  10. What Do We Know about the EU Referendum?

    Just in case you missed it: a little while ago we had an itty bitty referendum on whether the UK should stay as a part of the EU.

    Given that this has had a small, barely worth talking about really, hardly noticed it impact on British politics, we wondered whether there would be any visible changes in the way that people are using our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Did people suddenly find themselves wanting to know more about Europe-related matters in the run-up to the referendum? What about afterwards?

    Short answer: Yes they did! To both questions!

    Long answer: Same as the short answer…but with graphs!

    What we did

    First we drew up a list of twenty-three keywords which might indicate that the request was at least partly related to either Europe, the EU, or the topics that became part of the debate leading up to the vote: keywords like EU, European Parliament, Schengen, refugee, and, that brave little neologism that could, Brexit*.

    Then we pulled all requests where the requester had used one or more of those phrases** and started number-crunching.

    What we found

    In the period between the May 2015 general election and the June 2016 EU referendum WhatDoTheyKnow sent 1,022 FOI requests that matched our EU keywords. These were generated by 641 unique requesters.

    Looking at these requesters: 79% of them made just a single request, and 96% made four or less. The remaining 25 users made 25% of all EU requests — with three users making more than 20 requests each.

    For the year leading up the election there was an average of 55 users making 75.6 EU-related requests between them each month.

    If we split this into two halves (the last half of 2015 and the first half of 2016), the average number of users per month had increased by 20 in 2016 compared to the second half of 2015 — with a peak in both users and requests in the month before the referendum and a decline in the immediate run-up.

    run-up-eu-requests

    So people had more questions to ask once the referendum was more in the public eye. But maybe that’s just reflecting wider trends across the board. Can we state with certainty that this change was referendum-related?

    Let’s move on to the second question: What happened after the referendum?

    After the referendum

    Comparing the three months before the referendum with the three months after it, we see users and requests are up in the post referendum period.

    EU-related requests Users making EU-related requests
    Pre-referendum 310 216
    Post-referendum 332 252

    Looking month-by-month, we can see this is mostly an immediate spike followed by a drop-off:

    eu ref - either side

    In fact when we looked week-by-week, we could see the largest spike was in the week following the vote. This gives us some definite hints that it was the referendum that was driving this.

    But to make extra sure that this increase really was referendum-related, we compared these changes to the overall WhatDoTheyKnow trends at the time.

    The number of requests made across the platform increased between the two periods (17,246 increased to 19,120) — but there was also a decrease in the number of unique users making requests (4,850 decreased to 4,721).

    This means the post-referendum increase in EU requests was counter to the general flow – and we can use a statistical test (chi-square) to confirm that the difference in users making EU requests is sufficiently different from the overall direction of users to reject the idea they are being driven by the same trend (p < 0.01 for those that want to know) .

    So we can say there is a real difference before and after the referendum: people were asking government for more for more EU-related information after the referendum than before it.

     Notes

    *First appearance in an FOI request: May 2015!

    **Obvious Complaint: But Alex! Aren’t some of those a bit broad? And the answer is yes! In fact we discarded ‘immigration’ and ‘migration’ as keywords because when separated from other keywords, these were mostly requests for information about immigration rules relevant to the requester (although that said, a similar post-referendum peak appears when we looked at these ‘immigration’ requests in isolation. There were just too few to make as big a deal out of the change).

    ‘EU’ as a keyword will similarly be catching requests that have nothing to do with the EU, as EU law is so integrated that appeals to directives or other obligations can make an appearance in requests to just about any public body on just about every topic.

    While the global count of ‘EU related requests’ might be inflated by this, a change relative to the population of all requests (like the one we found) should be robust — assuming that non EU-related requests that mention the EU are not distributed differently to non EU-related requests that don’t. This seems reasonable and so for the sake of this blog post — let’s say that’s so.

    Keywords used

    Here are the words we used (note on why we didn’t include ‘immigration’ or ‘migration’ above); one request often matched multiple keywords:

    Term

    Matches

    European Union

    112

    EU

    780

    European Commission

    22

    EU Law

    44

    European Law

    9

    European Parliament

    18

    EEA

    446

    European Economic Area

    30

    European regulations

    1

    EU regulations

    9

    European directive

    1

    EU directive

    7

    Asylum Seeker

    25

    Refugee

    79

    Resettled

    7

    EU migrants

    5

    European migrants

    2

    EU nationals

    16

    European nationals

    3

    Schengen

    9

    Calais

    9

    Brexit

    46

    EU Referendum

    75


    Image: Speedpropertybuyers.co.uk (CC by/2.0)