The second international Alaveteli conference
Venue: Impact Hub Next, C/ Alameda 22, Madrid 28014
There’s no other conference like it. If you’re involved with Freedom of Information technologies, you’ll want to be at AlaveteliCon, the only event with a specific focus on FOI in the internet age.
AlaveteliCon brings together civic society organisations and individuals from around the world. All have one thing in common: an interest in online Right To Know tools.
Interested? Keep reading and apply below!
About 6 weeks ago we arrived back from Monrovia, having just undertaken our first design exercise out there. Paul wrote about our experience in this blog as a broad overview. After further long distance design calls we wanted to delve a little more deeply into the process we’re following and what we’re learning about it.
To begin with, I should mention is that this is the first project where mySociety International will be leading on the implementation of a project using Design Thinking (the South African was a trial using a cut-down version of the approach and furthermore the implementation is being carried out solely by a local team).
Another important point for us is that the Design Thinking approach encompasses far more than just thinking about software development. The aim of the process is to develop an understanding what is required to ensure that the users’ need is addressed. Some of the solution might be technical, but much is likely to be about the processes and people that are required to ensure that needs are met.
For example, in the case of the Liberian FOI project where the internet penetration is low and the day to day obstacles people need to overcome are significantly more difficult than in the global north, a large proportion of the project time and resources will be dedicated to delivering offline services.
These provision of these services will tend to take a shape that fits into citizens’ current experiences. An example might be setting up an SMS short-code that allows people to contact a support team to call them back, in order to draft an FOI request on their behalf. They will then physically deliver hard copies of those FOI requests to the relevant ministries in Monrovia. This type of solution could be particularly beneficial for people who live outside the capital and do not have the time or resources to travel there to submit requests directly themselves.
There are two critical differences between the Design Thinking approach and other projects we have run with groups in the past. The first is that, with non-design centred partnerships, most groups start the process with a firm sense of the “type” of thing that they want from the outset – for example an instance of our Pombola platform that is used to power Mzalendo.com.
This is totally understandable, and in many cases what the funders of these projects are looking for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the users will get the most impactful solution.
Where we have sufficient funding to undertake this process available we intend for all of our new international projects to be starting with no expectations about the ultimate product – the outcome might even be that we don’t end up producing any software at all, because the best solution might consist of a desk, a phone and some radio advertising.
The second difference is that we have usually relied upon the local implementing partner to provide the insight and define the specification.
For our Design Thinking based projects we’ll have a closer relationship with the local partner and together we’ll identify potential end user groups we can talk to about their needs.
After doing a first round of in-depth interviews, the team then synthesise the information – essentially sharing what we’ve learnt with the rest of the group to pick out the most important points. The next stage is empathy mapping, where we figure out what people have said, thought, felt and done. This is a key stage in helping to identify the needs of the users.
It might seem simpler to ask them what they need, and often we did say something like “What would make this process easier for you?”. Yet actually analysing what they’re saying about the process and at what points they seemed frustrated or blocked – that tells us a lot more about points where we could change and hopefully improve the process than a straight up “What do you need?” question.
This is the stage we’re in at the moment with the Liberian project, though we have done some brief forays into Ideation – coming up with ideas for how to address the needs, and we are now starting to thinking about prototyping these ideas.
Of course, this method doesn’t mean we’ll completely stop using software solutions, or looking at A/B testing and Analytics as measures of the success of website. However we will also be looking at other measures of success or failure based on the product we’re building and the change we’re trying to achieve.
In the case of the Liberia FOI project, many of the users are likely to have no direct contact with the software themselves so we’ll need to design a monitoring system that measures the effect the changes have on their experience of making FOI requests.
One thing we’ve learnt is that a Design Thinking approach doesn’t only affect the first iteration of a solution. This may seem obvious, but from our brief work with this process we’ve seen that uses/users can be hard to predict at the outset – though in the case of the latter group we worked hard to spread the net widely in order to find potential users in Liberia.
So we’re interested to see, when we get to that point, what the prototype testing brings back and what new changes, improvements and tweaks need to be made.
More about our experiences with this process will be shared the lifetime of the project, as we learn, change and iterate ourselves.
On Wednesday we had our first community virtual hangout for Alaveteli. The idea of a drop-in virtual meeting was inspired by meeting community members in person over the last few months.
Louise visited AskTheEU in Madrid and mySociety’s International Team spent time with community members from Australia, Spain, Canada and many other countries at Transparency Camp. Henare’s session with David Cabo and Michael Morisy from MuckRock on FOIA at Transparency Camp provided an inspirational opportunity to talk more with the people running Alaveteli sites.
We wanted to have a regular time where we could share experiences of running FOI sites in general and installing the Alaveteli software in particular. Though everyone that joined was running an Alaveteli install, we’d love for people interested in running a site or who already run a site using different software to join future hangouts! Your experiences could shed light on issues that people might be having, and vice versa.
It was great to learn from groups in Romania, Canada, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. We had representatives from three new or fairly new installs as well as sites like Right To Know and FYI.Nz which have been running for a couple of years, each with their own stories of success and pinch points where things have been more difficult.
What did we learn?
First off, we have a great, open community that’s happy to discuss problems, suggest solutions and speak about what it’s like to run an FOI site in their countries. So thank you for that!
Despite differences in laws across the world, people do face similar issues in driving awareness of FOI and FOIA sites. People share ideas for positioning FOI sites came up such as using them to investigate specific issues that are current and getting a lot of press. For example the issue of detention logs in Australia (which you can see more of here and here) helped Right To Know raise more awareness of both the FOI law and the site. According to Henare:
“The news buzz made people realise they had FOI rights, which isn’t general knowledge in Australia. They started thinking “oh, I could put in a request about X””
The next hangout will be in around a month and we’re going to set an agenda to talk about different ways to increase usage and awareness of FOI sites, what has worked, and what hasn’t. All details will be posted on the google group, please join if you want to attend!
We also got some great feedback on places where we can support people launching and running an Alaveteli install – by making it easier to make a complete set of translations for a particular release of the software, and by making the process of upgrading to a new version easier in general. All this input is really useful to us, especially as we’re currently updating the documentation on Alaveteli.org to make it easier to get started.
Finally we touched on the alaveteli-users google group as a place where people can share their issues, stories and successes, and get input from other FOI practitioners. It’s useful for tapping into the expertise of teams in other timezones! This seemed like a pretty decent plan when it was mentioned, do let us know what you think!
Next week is a really exciting event for us here at mySociety International. You’ve probably heard about it; the Open Government Partnership annual meeting. This coincides with Global Transparency Week and a lot of international friends grouping in London for the first time in a while. It’s going to be good to catch up on interesting projects from other international groups. And don’t forget to come along to our drinks if you’re in town!
A few more things about OGP before I let you know what we’ve been up to over the past month.
- We’re hosting a panel at OGP and we’ll have Matthew Landauer (Open Australia), Maria Baron (Fundación Directorio Legislativo), Stephen Abbott (UK Government) and Paul Lenz (mySociety) talking, with Tom Steinberg (mySociety) chairing.
- We’ll have a stand in the festival area both days. I’ll be on that so please drop by and say hello!
- We’ll ALSO be running a small workshop with our friends from Ciudadano Inteligente on POPLUS. We haven’t got a time for this yet, but it will be on Thursday 31st October. More details will be on Twitter (@mysocietyintl) closer to the time.
In other news:
- Over the past few months we’ve been working on a Pombola website with PMG from South Africa. We’re getting closer to completing this and can’t wait to show you the results.
- We’re also hoping to start work really soon on an Alaveteli install for South Africa, so watch this space!
- Other Alaveteli sites are nearing completion in Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. More on those as they appear… If you have installed Alaveteli, Pombola or FixMyStreet and not had contact with our international team please do drop us a line! We love to hear from you! Along this vein we recently came across Nuvasuparati in Romania and Aduanku in Malaysia. The best kind of surprise!
- We are still offering some days of assistance to people that want help or advice setting up these sites, so do get in touch if this is you. Don’t be shy! We can discuss your ideas and your project and see where we can help.
Where to find us:
25th and 26th October – MozFest, London (Dave W)
30th Oct – 1st November – OGP Annual meeting, London (Paul, Jen)
30th October – mySociety Drinks, London (Paul, Jen, Dave W)
25th November to 30th November – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore (Dave W)
27th to 30th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
If you want a more formal chat, send me an email before the date and I’ll arrange a meet up. Especially for Dave’s Malaysia and Singapore trips as these are arranged expressly with the idea that we will spend time with interested local groups!
September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.
Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.
Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?
Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.
Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.
There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.
Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!
Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.
All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.
In the beginning…
To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.
But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”
“The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”
It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.
What was the most challenging?
According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.
“The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”
Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front […] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.
Launch and results
Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.
Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.
But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”
So what have DATA taken away from the process?
“Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”
The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. […] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”
A few days ago, one of our international contacts, Matthew Landauer from the OpenAustralia Foundation, posted to the Alaveteli mailing list about a recent experiment in crowdsourcing FOI requests. It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I asked if we could share more widely.
Matthew tells us: “It’s a project called DetentionLogs and it’s a collaboration between a small group of freelance journalists, Guardian Australia, New Matilda, The Global Mail and OpenAustralia Foundation.
The journalists have done some FOI [requesting] to get a summarised list of around 7000 “incidents” that have happened in detention centres. Then, if members of the public are interested in finding out more they can help out by doing a further FOI request for detailed information about the incident via RightToKnow, OpenAustralia’s FOI site which uses Alaveteli.”
But what’s the history? According to the Guardian, over the past few years there’s been a sharp rise in the number of specific incidents in Australia’s two largest immigration detention centres. Elections are coming up soon (though still not confirmed) and the topic of immigration is one of the fiercest political debates around the elections. The co-founders of DetentionLogs came across a large PDF document on the Immigration Department’s disclosure log, with a summary of the incidents – and the project sprang from there.
The idea is that people can view the visual database, see incidents and click on them to adopt them or flag them. Adopting an incident takes you to the RightToKnow website where you can submit a pre-drafted FOI request to get more details. You also have the option to edit it, but the page opens with all the incident data that is needed to match the request with the incident you clicked on. Flagging an incident makes it appear brighter on the visualisation, drawing other people’s attention to it. Global Mail asked two requesters to share their reasons for participating here. It’s interesting reading, but also quite shocking.
So far there have been around 125 FOI requests made through this site. But it’s not all been plain sailing…
Matthew writes this of his challenges: “This is what I’ve learned from the experience so far:
- The government department in question (department of immigration) is clearly concerned by the crowdsourcing, so much so that each of these requests is being handled personally by the director of FOI policy for the department and they’re doing whatever they can to shut things down, including in this case, a misinterpretation of the FOI legislation. Kat Szuminska and I wrote an opinion piece on this for the Global Mail.
- The relationship between the multiple websites involved in DetentionLogs confuses people a bit. People might start on the global mail “behind the wire” site and then get directed at RightToKnow to make the FOI request. So, we’ve had a couple of cases where people gave their email addresses to RightToKnow, we message them and then they thought that the DetentionLogs project had given us their email address without permission.
- There is no way currently in Alaveteli to contact a group of people. What I ended up doing is taking an email that the DetentionLogs people wrote, exporting a list of email addresses by hand from the database and emailing them personally on behalf of the DetentionLogs people. This was hardly ideal, it confused people. I think I would much prefer that people who make a request in one of these FOI crowdsourcing campaigns could optionally sign up to a mailing list or a public forum where they could discuss strategy and such things.”
This crowdsourcing experiment is still a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. It’s great to see how the Alaveteli software can be adapted to fit a specific campaign and hopefully that can inspire others to use it in a similar way. Mail Us to see how.
 Crowd by Michael Dornbierer
 Fountain pen from William Arthur fine stationary
 Experiment from Peter Megyri
One of the common elements you will find across mySociety’s sites is that they have features designed to reduce duplicate messages or reports being sent to politicians, governments or companies. We often do this in quite a subtle way, so it is worth spelling out here how we do this across several sites:
- If you start to report a broken street light or pothole on FixMyStreet, you’ll see local problems before you start to type in your own details. This means if the problem is already there, you can see before you waste any effort.
- If you use WhatDoTheyKnow to send a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we provide a facility which encourages users to search through other people’s requests before they type their new request in.
- If the 08:10 train you take to work is always late, when you go to report it on FixMyTransport, we show you all the other problems already reported on that route. If someone else has already set up a page, you can press the big green ‘join’ button, and show your support.
- If more than a handful of people try to use WriteToThem to send an exact duplicate of the same message to a politician, it will prevent it. This is because we know that politicians listen much, much more to individual messages from constituents than bulk mails.
This pattern – trying to intervene before people write identical messages or reports – is a design decision that makes a big difference to the way these sites operate. As usual with mySociety sites, this little feature seems like the sort of thing that would be quite tempting to skip when building a copy. But it really matters to the long term success of the sites. There are three reasons why.
First, there is a simple public benefit that comes from saving time. There’s no point us wasting your time if a report or request has already been sent, especially around minor issues. Saving your users time makes them happier and more likely to enjoy their experience.
Second, if you can spot that someone is about to send a duplicate message, we may be able to encourage that user to support the existing report instead of making a new one. For example, on FixMyStreet you can add an update to an existing pothole report (“it’s getting worse!”).
This feature is most visible, and most mature, on FixMyTransport, where users are clearly encouraged to ‘support’ pre-existing reports, rather than making new copies. By discouraging duplicate reports, we let people with a shared problem work together, even if this only means adding themselves as a “supporter” and doing nothing else. We know that many people search for, and find, problem reports which have turned into these little campaigns, which they then join and help. So even if they are only reading them (not joining them) that exposure can have some value to the people affected. This would be diluted if we created lots of similar reports about the same problem.
Third, we discourage duplicates for the benefit of the governments and companies receiving messages. We don’t think FixMyStreet is effective because it lets people moan: we think it’s effective because it helps local government to be effective by giving them good quality reports about local problems, in formats that area easy to handle. This good quality reporting increases the chance that the government will understand the problem and act on it, which leads to our main goal – citizen empowerment. Recipients are unlikely to help users if many of the messages they get are confused, inaccurate or duplicates, so we work on all these fronts.
So if you haven’t thought about this before, notice how the “work flow” through our sites makes you see similar problems before you’ve finished reporting your own. This is the implicit way to prevent duplication. We don’t have “Stop! Warning! Check this is a new problem!” messages, because we never want to discourage genuine users. But the careful design of the interface gently discourages, successfully, duplicate reports, and encourages supporting of other items.
It’s never possible to entirely prevent duplication. But we try hard, because it’s always better to join people together around common causes, than it is to let them struggle alone.
Romina Colman was one of the delegates at the Alaveteli conference. As well as making videos, tweeting at a good pace, and talking to everyone, Romina took the time to write up her experiences for Argentina’s national newspaper, La Nacion.
If Spanish is not your language, you can now read the English versions on the Alaveteli blog.
Just to finish off this collection of video clips from the Alaveteli conference, here are a couple featuring mySociety people. They were shot by Romina Colman.
First, mySociety Director Tom Steinberg, talking about what he hopes will happen as a result of the conference.
And below is Seb Bacon, Lead Developer of the Alaveteli Platform, explaining how the project began:
Phew! Do you feel like you were there yet? If you’ve been inspired by the examples and advice from transparency hackers and activists around the world, you may be thinking about building your own Alaveteli site. Why not join our mailing list and introduce yourself? After all, if you’ve watched these videos, you’ll already be familiar with many of the people on the list!