1. I used FixMyTransport – now what?

    Transit Distress by Eric Parker - used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence

    FixMyTransport was launched a month ago. It is now well on its way to listing 1,000 individual complaints, suggestions and requests to the public transport operators of Great Britain.

    As the sample size grows, we’re able to see just what provokes the country’s mild-mannered passengers into action. There are the diurnal irritations – the leaky station roof, constant announcements, smelly trains; there is the discomfort of overcrowding and overheated buses.

    All of which are important, of course. And in this, FixMyTransport is achieving its aim of allowing people to make their reports to the operators, while at the same time creating small bunches of people who read those reports and think, ‘Hey, me too!’.

    But FixMyTransport is not just for the little gripes. It’s uncovering some pretty big issues, too. Prime among these is the issue of accessibility: reports have come in of buses driving away rather than let a wheelchair user on; a disabled passenger who has surmised that it’s easier to invite friends to come to him rather than try to navigate London’s public transport system; a station from which those with restricted mobility can only travel in one direction.

    What next?

    The big question for us is, what happens now? Are these reports making anything better? In some cases, yes.

    There is the train that will now stop at intermediate stations, and the pedestrian crossings that are no longer blocked by buses. Little things that’ll make a big difference to the people who reported them. But the pay-off is not always so immediate. Bigger issues are obviously not going to be fixed overnight. And some problems won’t be fixed, for a multitude of reasons – they don’t fit in with the operators’ plans, or they’re not budgeted for, or they just aren’t seen as sufficiently important.

    How is FixMyTransport going to crack those? Well, it was set up so that you can show your operator that there is demand, that budgets need to be massaged, or that plans should change. If you’ve used the site, you may well have been on the receiving end of a comment from one of the team, nudging you to spread the word of your campaign, among friends, family, and fellow-passengers.

    The fact that people can sign up to your page helps make FixMyTransport different from just contacting the operator directly. We also reckon it’ll make a difference when it comes to getting changes. Consider, for example, the campaign to get increased cycle parking at Cambridge station – with 176 supporters (and still growing every day), our biggest yet. It’s been picked up by local press, talked about on Twitter – and eventually, National Express won’t be able to ignore the public demonstration of a palpable need.

    Well, that’s the plan. We know it’s early days, and that FixMyTransport represents a massive sea change for some operators who are not used to interacting openly and online.

    If you’ve written an impassioned, well-reasoned request, gathered supporters and spread the word far and wide, and still hit a brick wall, we have other suggestions. FixMyTransport allows us to get you writing to your local councillor, to the local paper, or to relevant groups like Passenger Focus, Transport for All, and the Campaign for Better Transport. These groups have been bashing away at the big problems like accessibility for far longer than we have, and it makes sense to tap into their expertise.

    We know that for some issues, it’ll be a long game – just as it’ll be a long game trying to get every operator fully signed-up to the notion of transparent online interaction. But we’ll keep trying, and we hope you will too.

  2. FixMyTransport launches – mySociety’s biggest project since 2008

    Everyone at mySociety is quite bubbling with excitement at the news that we’re today officially launching FixMyTransport.com , mySociety’s first new core charitable website since WhatDoTheyKnow launched in 2008. We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data.

    What is it for?

    FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.

    The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.

    The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Who made it?

    FixMyTransport was largely built by one remarkable coder – Louise Crow, who started as a volunteer and who is now one of our longest serving core developers. She spent 18 months coding the site almost entirely by herself, wrestling with truly tortuous data problems and collaborating with Birmingham’s fantastic SuperCool design to make it look lovely (you should hire them, they’re great).  She also tolerated my ‘aspirational scattergun’ school of project management with remarkable good humour. She really is the king of transport coding.

    Credit must also go to mySociety core dev Dave Whiteland, who made the Facebook integration work, despite not having an account himself!

    Why is it dedicated to Angie Martin?

    Angie Martin was a mySociety coder for an all-too-brief period before she succumbed to cancer at a devastatingly early age. We’re dedicating this site to her in remembrance of a great, self taught perl monger who should still be here.

    We’ll be posting further blog posts about the development process, the data challenges, and the overall project philosophy. In the mean time, please keep arms and legs inside the carriage – FixMyTransport is just about to depart.

  3. Help Close Freedom of Information Act Loophole

    Members of the team running mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com also campaign for improvements to freedom of information law.

    Volunteer John Cross has been drawing his MP’s attention to a major loophole in the UK’s Freedom of Information Act which means that a company wholly owned by one local authority is subject to the act but a company owned by two local authorities is not. John’s MP, Peter Bottomley, has been convinced that this anomaly in the law does not make sense and has submitted an Early Day Motion calling for the loophole to be closed. The EDM also highlights the fact that currently a company owned 95% or even 99.5% by a single public authority is not subject to the provisions of the act, as only companies owned 100% by a single authority are currently covered.

    The text of the motion states:

    “That this House notes that section 6 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 with certain exceptions makes companies wholly owned by the Crown or by a single public authority subject to the Act; further notes that a company wholly owned by two or more public authorities or 95 per cent. owned by a single public authority will be outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and calls for the closure of this loophole and for companies owned 90 per cent. or more by any number of public authorities to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

    The motion is currently open for other MPs to sign-up to and show their support. If you would like to help increase the number of public bodies that are covered by Freedom of Information legislation please consider writing to your MP, asking them to add their name to the current signatories.

    There are many situations where public authorities working together or even setting up jointly owned companies is commendable. Such arrangements can lead to savings though economies of scale and avoid duplication; we may see more such companies set up as a response to economic pressures. What is problematic though is the loss of accountability which currently occurs when public bodies come together and set up these companies without requiring them to follow the highest standards of openness, transparency and accountability.

    Examples of Companies Which Would Be Made Subject to FOI if the Loophole was Closed:

    • Connexions Nottinghamshire Limited – provides support services to young people and is jointly owned by Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council.
    • Coventry and Solihull Waste Disposal Company – owned two thirds by Coventry City Council and one third by Solihull MBC
    • G-Mex Limited – Through its ownership of Destination Manchester Ltd and investment in Modesole Ltd, Manchester City Council has a 95% shareholding in G-Mex Limited
    • Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) – this company is the official agency for the collection, analysis and dissemination of quantitative information about higher education.
    • Manchester Airport PLC – the Manchester Airport Group is owned by the ten local authorities of Greater Manchester
    • The Russell Group – is owned by, and represents 20 of the UK’s largest universities, the company’s aims as set out in documents filed on incorporation included “to influence and make representations to stakeholders and legislators”

    Many housing associations, purchasing consortia, representative bodies and urban development companies are among the organisations which would be required to operate in a more transparent manner should this loophole be closed.

  4. Freedom of Information Workshop For Republic Activists

    On Saturday John Cross and Richard Taylor, two volunteers who work on mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com, gave a workshop on FOI to a meeting of activists from Republic, an organisation which campaigns for an elected head of state in the UK.

    mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. That said, members of the WhatDoTheyKnow team are be happy to consider invitations from any groups wishing to hold a workshop discussing freedom of information.

    Many of those present at Saturday’s event were active campaigners on a wide range of subjects ranging from human rights to fair trade as well as having an interest in constitutional reform. The FOI workshop was oversubscribed with the majority of those present at the event deciding to attend the session. Unlike a previous workshop held at OpenTech where most attendees had made an FOI request themselves prior to the event, at this workshop all but one had not done so.

    The Royals and FOI
    Given the audience, the status of the royals with respect to FOI was particularly pertinent. The FOI act exempts information if it relates to: “communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or with the Royal Household, or the conferring by the Crown of any honour or dignity”. This exemption does not apply though if it is determined that it is in the public interest for the information to be released. The requirement for this public interest test is under threat as the Prime Minister has been moving to strengthen the restrictions on releasing information related to the Royal family. On the 10th of June 2009 in a speech to Parliament on Constitutional Renewal Gordon Brown said:

    …we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions.

    Following that speech BBC journalist Martin Rosenbaum obtained a statement from the Ministry of Justice clarifying that in practice what Gordon Brown’s words meant was:

    … the relevant exemption in the Freedom of Information Act will be made absolute for information relating to communications with the Royal Household that is less than 20 years’ old.

    In FOI jargon an “absolute exemption” is one not subject to a public interest test.

    Even with the law as it stands it is not easy to obtain information on how the royals are, or are attempting to, influence government. For example John Cross has asked the Ministry of Justice to supply him with copies of correspondence they had received from the Queen and Prince of Wales. They rejected his request on the grounds that the public interest in non-disclosure exceeded the public interested in disclosure; as well as suggesting exemptions relating to “information provided in confidence” and “personal information” also applied.

    The Royal Household’s position on FOI
    The Royal Household is not subject to the freedom of information act; though it has made a statement on the subject saying:

    Despite its exemption from the FOI Acts, the Royal Household’s policy is to provide information as freely as possible in other areas, and to account openly for its use of public money.

    WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy is to include such organisations which have indicated they are willing to voluntarily comply with the act to the site. While we list The Royal Household, at the time of writing no-one has yet used the facility to request information.

    Using WhatDoTheyKnow for Campaigning
    While we stress the importance of keeping freedom of information requests focused, FOI is a powerful tool for campaigners. We were asked if it would be possible for a group like Republic to set up an account on WhatDoTheyKnow for their campaign? The answer to this is: “Yes! – WhatDoTheyKnow wants to encourage groups to use the site”. The information commissioner has confirmed that it is acceptable to use the name of a “corporate body” when making a FOI request, that’s a broad term which encompasses many organisations, groups and charities.

    Republic themselves use FOI extensively and often generate major national news stories as a result of responses to their requests. They want to be able to either offer journalists exclusive stories or write a press release based on information released. They can’t do this if the story gets out first via WhatDoTheyKnow so would be interested in an ability to make requests initially in private. mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow have been considering an option for journalists to be able to make hidden requests via the site. Such a feature could potentially generate an income stream for the site as well as encourage a greater proportion of FOI requests to be made via it. Once the article had been published then the FOI correspondence could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.

    As well as meeting those who use, or might want to use, the site to make requests WhatDoTheyKnow also wants to engage positively with public authorities; we see them as important users of our service too. Developer Francis Irving represented the site at the FOI Live conference for information professionals in June and will be speaking at the Freedom of Information Scotland conference in December.

  5. Speaker Election Day: Who’s in and who’s out

    As the decisive voting day dawns, mySociety has eight full or partial endorsements of our 3 Principles from possible candidates for Speaker of the Commons. We hope you take a look at what they said in full on their TheyWorkForYou pages. Just five possible candidates didn’t reply in writing, or at all – those absentees being Patrick Cormack, Sylvia Heal, Margaret Beckett, Parmijit Dhanda and Ann Widdecombe (who did phone, but doesn’t seem to have followed up with email). Interestingly, the five non-respondants included both candidates whose offices don’t accept email (Beckett and Cormack).

    The last time MPs voted for a speaker, the one candidate who didn’t show at the hustings went on to win. Let’s hope MPs learned the lesson of voting for a candidate who isn’t willing to stand up and be counted when it comes to the issues that make their job so critical…

  6. Speaker candidates: Half the field now endorses mySociety’s principles

    Thumbs up by Carf (cc)
    ‘Thumbs up’ by Carf (cc)

    A few days ago mySociety asked the known possible candidates for Speaker to endorse 3 principles relating to making Parliament more transparent on the Internet.

    We’ve now had endorsements which you can read on the individual pages of Sir George Young, Sir Menzies Campbell, Frank Field, Tony Wright and Sir Alan Beith , which until Parmijit Dhanda declared this morning, represented endorsement by 50% of the possible field. We also just recieved a typically frank and interrogative phonecall from Ann Widdecombe, who will be writing a formal response soon.

    So, come on, John Bercow, Alan Haselhurst, Patrick Cormack, Sylvia Heal, and Chris Mullin. What’s holding up your replies? The days counter on your pages is telling the world how quick you are to respond…

    Update: 11 June John Bercow has now endorsed, and we’ve written to Margaret Beckett and Parmjit Dhanda, who’ve just declared their candidacies.

    Update 2: Chris Mullin has told us he is ‘not a candidate’.

    Update 3: Sir Alan Haselhurst has also endorsed.

    Update 4 – Speaker Election Day: And Sir Michael Lord endorses too.

  7. 3 Principles: First endorsement, from Sir George Young

    In less than 24 hours we’ve seen the first reply to our emails asking possible Speaker candidates to endorse our three principles. It is from Sir George Young – we’re looking forward to seeing the responses from the others that we wrote to.

    Sir George is broadly supportive, which is great, and we’ve printed his reply in full on his own TheyWorkForYou MP page.

    In the mean time, please do write to your MP and ask them to ensure that whoever they vote for, it is a candidate who has endorsed mySociety’s three simple principles, You really can have an impact on this issue: MPs are desperate to be seen to be acting for their constituents right now.

    NB mySociety is strictly non-partisan and non-party aligned. We want all candidates from all parties to endorse these principles, and we have ensured that none of the wording of the principles leans towards any particular party or set of beliefs not connected to transparency in the modern age.

  8. 3 Principles we are asking Speaker candidates to endorse: You can help right now

    Speakers Chair (Parliamentary Copyright)
    Speaker’s Chair (Parliamentary Copyright)

    mySociety has today emailed (and in one case, posted) a set of 3 Principles which we believe it is important that all candidates for Speaker endorse, before the election of a new Speaker by MPs.

    1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.

    2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.

    3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.

    We will be posting the status of requests on the likely candidates web pages where we expect large numbers of people to see them before the vote in late June. We have also taken the unusual step of allowing possible candidates to leave a statement of up to 150 words on the principles.

    (NB no candidates have actually declared at this stage, so we are starting with the BBC’s list of possibles)

    Rationale

    mySociety helped lead the campaign back in January to prevent the last ditch attempts to conceal MPs’ expenses. We did so not because, like the newspapers, we wanted to revel in embarrassment and scandal, but because we believe that in the Internet age, the only way for our democracy and government to thrive is if they are open and connected to the net as the rest of us expect them to be. The dramatic events seen in Parliament in recent days vindicate the view that secrecy breeds poor policies and seeds untrustworthy behaviour in the weaker willed.

    Furthermore, more than a simple attitude of openness is required of the new Speaker: the public needs a genuine will to push for technological reform using the power of the Internet that will take both open-mindedness and a willing to tread on toes, especially in some parts of the unelected establishment.

    Case in point: Over the last two years we have been trying to persuade Parliament to acknowledge that the way it publishes its Bills online is hopelessly inadequate for the Internet age. The campaign has faltered, despite multi partly endorsement from 140 MPs and a campaign membership of thousands. To see why, just take a look at this colourful and error-crammed internal email that we uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, published for the first time today.

    The new Speaker will have a tough job on their hands to overcome resistance of this kind. The best thing we can do is help the new Speaker, whoever they are, assume their new job with a clear mandate from the public, as well as from members.

    Act!

    That is why, as a final part of this call, we are asking you, our community, to write to your MP today to let them know that you expect them to vote for a candidate that has endorsed the principles above. Your voices to your own constituency MPs can resonate in a way that no blog post or newspaper article ever can. Go to it.

  9. MPs expenses: The best example yet of why FOI is a good law

    You may have seen a few months ago that mySociety led the campaign to stop the Freedom of Information Act being changed to conceal MPs expenses. And we won, which was nice.

    Given the wall-to-wall revelations about taxpayer funded moats and bathplugs, and the new wave of  resignations and repayments,  we want to exercise a little accountability by reminding readers of the arguments that were used to conceal this information twice in the last two years. These helpful examples should assist mySociety’s friends in keeping an eye out for similar dubious logic in the future.

    First, in 2007, a concealment bill was tabled by a backbencher, but which oddly made it all the way to the Lords before failing (it would normally have been struck down by the government). The argument used then was that private mail sent by constituents to MPs would end up in the hands of unscrupulous characters, even though there was already another law to prevent this, and even though hardly anyone appears to have complained to the Information Commissioner about what the proposing MP described as a ‘vexed problem‘.

    Then, back in January this year, a different and bold explanation was given: none. Instead, a strange pretence was played out in Parliament, in which the fact that MPs were being given the opportunity to vote to overrule a court-mandated order to publish was simply not mentioned: Watch the video of the Leader explaining what’s going to be voted for – any idea why people might be laughing as she stands up? Can you spot where she explains why the court needs overruling? The only explanation I could find anywhere for this reversal of openness was an anonymous quote in the Guardian.

    So here we are after both attempts to hide expenses were defeated, watching as the rules around expenses change substantially and as MPs reach deep into their own pockets: all things that would not have taken place if either of the above proposals had passed. Simply the fact that the rules are changing and that the leaders of parties are apologising must make it clear that the excuses and non-excuses given above were, even if unintentionally, blocking better government.

    Despite the obvious pain for MPs this week, and the fact that the whole act is doubtless being cursed across Westminster, we must shout from the hilltops that this week is a great success for the Freedom of Information Act, and a clear justification for why it is worth having on our books.

    Bad policies that both wasted money and eroded public trust are being swept away, and it is entirely down to the  Act and its supporters. More Freedom of Information will mean more such improvements, and people of good will should support its defence and its extension.

    Note: When can the rest of us have the data, please?

  10. Blimey. It looks like the Internets won

    UPDATE: If you approve of what we did this week, and what to help make sure we can still do it in the future, please pledge to support us: http://www.pledgebank.com/supportmysociety

    The vote on concealing MPs’ expenses has been cancelled by the government!

    In other words – we won!

    This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.

    Over 7000 people joined a Facebook group, they sent thousands of emails to over 90% of all MPs. Hundreds of thousands of people found out about the story by visiting TheyWorkForYou to find something they wanted to know, reading an email alert, or simply discovered what was going on whilst checking their Facebook or Twitter pages. Almost all of this happened, from nowhere, within 48 hours, putting enough pressure on Parliament to force change.

    Make no mistake. This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others. This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness.

    Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way. Sign up to our news mailing list (box on the right) to get updates on what mySociety gets up to.