We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.
As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.
It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.
As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.
Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.
There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.
So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.
If you’re a councillor who’d like to find out how our services can help you work more efficiently — and bring benefits to your residents — please do swing by for a chat at stand BL3.
We’ve written a lot about our street reporting service for councils — how it can integrate with existing back-end systems; how it can encourage channel shift and thus bring savings; and the many new features we’ve introduced in response to what councils tell us they need. You can read all our past posts on the FixMyStreet Pro blog.
But as a councillor, you may be interested in other aspects of the service. Here are a few highlights:
- FixMyStreet lets you subscribe to the reports being made in your ward — you’ll get an email every time someone makes a new report. This allows you to monitor issues as they occur, and take action if it’s warranted.
- You can also access a map showing every report ever made in your ward. If desired, you can filter reports by category or by status to get a picture of how each type of report, from graffiti to potholes, is impacting your residents.
- If your council is one of the many who use FixMyStreet Pro as their main reporting system, you’ll also have access to more refined analysis via the dashboard, which allows you to compare reports and fulfillment over different periods of time.
- You can make reports on the go, so if you spot something that needs fixing while you’re out and about, it’s quick and easy to get a report filed.
Keep It In The Community
Also come and discover Keep It In The Community, an England-wide online mapping of the spaces and places that are valuable to local communities, created in partnership with Power To Change.
Under the Localism Act of 2011, every council is obliged to retain a list of Assets of Community Value (ACVs): Keep it In The Community turns this obligation into a benefit for all, allowing you to store and share your data while contributing to a national picture.
Thanks to a recent update, Keep It In The Community also displays buildings and spaces currently under community ownership. As a councillor, we think you’ll like this service because:
- It’s completely free.
- It provides an attractive way for councils to display ACVs and community-run spaces, and invites residents to add richer detail such as memories and photographs.
- It’s a great way to demonstrate the community activity that’s taking place within your ward.
- It helps popularise the concept of community ownership, encouraging more residents to take action and preserve the spaces that matter to them.
If this has whetted your interest, don’t forget to come and meet the friendly mySociety and Power to Change folk on stand BL3.
On 26 – 27 of June, scholars and practitioners from all over the world will be meeting in Rio de Janeiro for the 6th Global Conference on Transparency Research. The conference focuses on measuring transparency, exploring how this can be achieved, what the barriers are, whether metrics are useful, and how current interventions are shaping transparency around the world.
mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul will be attending, and will be presenting some of mySociety’s recent research into the transparency of parliamentary information in sub-Saharan Africa. Examining transparency through a digital lens, this research broke new ground in understanding how digital tools are shaping parliamentary transparency in sub-Saharan Africa, and how barriers to transparency are affecting how citizens engage with public institutions. You can read the full report here.
Rebecca will be speaking at 4pm on Thursday 27 June, so please do come along and say hello. She says, “Transparency, digital and citizen engagement are core themes of our research at mySociety, and we love to talk to other people working in these areas. Meeting new people and sharing ideas are the best parts of any conference, so do grab me for a chat if you are attending.”
If you are unable to join Rebecca in Rio, but you are interested in talking research, we’re always happy to receive email. And keep your eyes peeled for our TICTeC conference announcement for April 2020. We will be opening our Call for Papers in early September.
Image: Jaime Spaniol
The chairs have been stacked, the banners rolled away, and 142 delegates have returned to their 29 home countries. TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technologies conference, is over for another year.
The 1.5 day event saw a concentration of wisdom and expertise from across the civic tech sector, and we’re keen to ensure that we share as many insights as possible.
To that end, we’ll be publishing materials such as photos, videos and slides, as soon as we can. We hope that, if you weren’t able to attend, they’ll give you a taste of the TICTeC experience — and, if you were there, they’ll serve to keep it fresh.
Some materials will take a little time: videos, for example, are currently in post-production, and should be ready within a few weeks. We’ll be announcing on the mySociety Twitter feed, Facebook page and this blog when they’re online, or check the TICTeC resources page.
Meanwhile, here’s what’s available right now:
- Slides from all the speakers Click on each speaker’s name to access them.
- Photos: all under Creative Commons, so feel free to download and share them if you wish.
- A Storify to help you relive the experience through hashtagged tweets and photos.
- The TICTeC Google Group: everyone who attended the conference is a member, so this is the place to continue discussions or begin new ones.
Thanks so much to everyone who participated, making TICTeC a real success. We hope to see you all again.
TICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies. It’s a great chance to hear from researchers and practitioners right across the sector, from many different countries and with many different approaches.
Not least among these will be our keynote speakers. Today, we’re delighted to announce the first of these: Helen Milner OBE, CEO of Tinder Foundation.
Helen has had a long history in delivering training around the internet and particularly, as a means of addressing social exclusion.
Hi Helen. Give us the elevator pitch: what will you be talking about at TICTeC, in a nutshell?
Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?
I’ll be putting a series of questions: is digital trying to fix outdated modes of democracy?
Are people getting increasingly detached from politics and do they feel that democratic structures are impenetrable no matter how much politicians tweet?
Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes? Or can communities co-design a better future for everyone using tech?
There are lots of clever people developing democratic and civic tools and apps to help people have a voice—but unless people have the skills to get online, and to use these apps, they will remain the preserve of the digitally confident.
I will be trying to answer some of these questions and discuss how our efforts can make maximum impact for most people most of the time – and leaving no-one behind.
And why should people be excited by this?
As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.
As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.
At Tinder Foundation, we’re committed to helping the 12.6 million people in the UK—and the next 3 billion around the world—who don’t have basic digital skills, and so who aren’t realising all of the benefits of the digital world.
My work as a Commissioner for the UK Parliament’s Digital Democracy Commission brought me up close to the barriers of history and culture looking from the inside out.
What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?
Tinder Foundation’s ethos is very much about taking collaborative approach to extend our reach and ensure that our models of delivery are co-designed for social challenges, rather than assuming a one-size fits all approach.
I’m excited about being part of the conversation so that together we can ensure that democratic and civic technology is accessible to everybody in society.
Where does your passion for digital and social inclusion come from?
In the UK there are still a shocking 12 million people—and 3 billion worldwide—who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.
I went to school in south London where I was educated alongside people from all different backgrounds and have always believed in equality of opportunity. In the UK however, there are still a shocking 12 million people – and 3 billion worldwide – who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.
By not helping these millions and billions of people gain we are further marginalising the most disadvantaged people in society as well as making it less easy for them to have a voice.
My role on the Digital Democracy Commission presented recommendations about how everybody in society could engage with the democratic process via digital channels, for example the potential for online voting and a website to help make politics more accessible to those who aren’t currently engaging with politics (such as young people).
The commission also made a strong case for investing in digital skills training in order to ensure that people can participate with a more digitised political system in future, and the same goes for civic tech.
If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?
Civic tech is about more than just technology—its evolution should be driven by a desire to include everyone and empowering everyone to participate in decision-making about matters that impact on them: community, housing, education, transport, the environment, budgets, et al.
Unless there is a shared commitment towards ensuring everyone can engage with democratic and civic tech, the power to influence change in society will continue to be held in the hands of a committed few.
You won’t want to miss what Helen has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now. Earlybird pricing runs until February 19.
Last year’s TICTeC saw a huge range of subject matter, including:
- Keynotes from leaders in the field, Shelley Boulianne and Ethan Zuckerman
- Experimenting with Facebook ads in Kenya, to see whether users could be encouraged to take a political action
- A look at the demographics of who uses online democracy tools across different countries
- A donor’s perspective on what makes for successful civic technology
- And even crowdsourcing a map of public toilets in the UK
Session leaders included representatives from MIT, the Oxford Internet Institute, the World Bank and even the Royal College of Art.
If your research is just as interesting, and touches on the impacts of civic technology anywhere in the world, we’d love to hear from you.
Oh, and did we tell you it’s in Barcelona? In spring time?
Speakers will have free entry to the conference, and there’s also the chance for all attendees to be considered for travel grants.
Still not sure? Check out videos, photos and slide decks from last year’s TICTeC.
We’ll be at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit on October 27-29.
It’s one of the biggest events of the year within our sector, focusing on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and innovation, so we know it’ll be a great chance to spread the word about our work, and catch up with friends from all over the world.
We’re there with two main purposes.
Launching our latest research
On Wednesday 28th October at 4pm, Rebecca will be hosting a session titled Researching the Real-World Impact of Digital Democracy. The Open Knowledge Foundation will be joining us, to present recent research they’ve conducted into open data and data literacy.
We’ll also be launching our own report on the demographics of civic tech users, highlighting how the kind of tools we make are used by different groups around the world, and the opportunities and challenges that this presents to civic technologists and open government advocates.
Can’t make it to Mexico City? No problem: we’ll simultaneously be publishing the research here on the mySociety website. Yes, that’s right, we’re staging an international live link-up… in our own small way.
Showcasing our software
With so many people in one place, all with a very specific interest in our kind of work, we jumped at the chance to exhibit at the Open Fair. Paul and Gemma will be there, showcasing some of our projects and tools that promote transparency and help with parliamentary monitoring.
We’re really looking forward to the event. If you’re going too, we hope you’ll come and say hello.
Want to know who else is going?
It’s always useful to know who’ll be around, so you can see who you want to catch up with. We’ve started this crowd-sourced spreadsheet: do feel free to add yourself.
Earlier this year, the AlaveteliCon conference brought together people with an interest in online Freedom of Information technologies.
It was an event quite unlike any other, and left a lasting impression of many dedicated people making good things happen for their communities, in places across the world.
That impression is reflected in these short videos, which came about when we yanked attendees away from their lunches and asked them questions in a darkened room.
Thanks very much to everyone who responded so amiably, as well as giving us such useful insights into what it’s like to run an FOI site in all sorts of circumstances. We’ve named them at the foot of this post, along with links to their sites.
The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.
We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.
Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.
Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.
If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.
Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:
- A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
- Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
- Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
- Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
- Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
- The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.
Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:
- Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
- Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
- Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
- Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
- In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
- In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
- Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
- …Other ideas? Let the Alaveteli mailing list know.
And some solutions we don’t recommend:
While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.
Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.
It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.
In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.
In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.
Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.
This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:
In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.
In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.
If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.
Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.
If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.
Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.
While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.
Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.
Official government sites
We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.
One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.
For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.
But! Together we’re stronger
Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.
If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!
AlaveteliCon – the conference about online Freedom of Information technologies – took place in Madrid last week.
It was an opportunity for people who run sites based on our FOI software Alaveteli (as well as other FOI platforms such as Frag Den Staat and MuckRock) to come together and share experiences, frustrations, solutions—and the kind of anecdotes that only FOI site implementers can truly understand.
It was also a fascinating snapshot of FOI laws around the world, and how digital tech is enabling the shoots of FOI to germinate in a variety of places, many of them previously closeted. It was inspiring, helpful and a refreshing reboot for practitioners, many of whom are fighting against quite considerable difficulties in their attempts to provide access to information.
We heard from delegates from countries as diverse as Rwanda, Australia, Uganda, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Spain, and many more. As we heard of each country’s specific problems, we also learned, conversely, that many of our challenges are much the same everywhere.
Over the next few weeks we will be sharing videos, photos and further blog posts, but for now you can get a taste of AlaveteliCon 2015 for yourself in the following places:
- The conference agenda shows which sessions ran and who was speaking
- A Storify gathers together tweets and photos to trace the conference’s main themes
- Some photos (we hope to have more soon) are on Flickr and Instagram
- The Twitter hashtag, #Alaveteli15 lets you see how things unfolded in real time
- We’ve put together a Twitter list of Alaveteli deployments around the world: should be a great follow if you’re one of them
- There’s now also an Alaveteli Slack channel for those who would like to continue the conversations begun at AlaveteliCon: ping @HenareDegan if you’d like access
- Join an Alaveteli Google Group: There’s one for sharing experiences of running online FOI platforms, and another for developers using Alaveteli.
We co-hosted Alavetelicon with Access Info, and the event was made possible with support from Open Society Foundations. Many thanks to all our speakers and delegates, whose insights and generous sharing of experiences ensured that everyone went home with plenty to work on!
We hope to summarise several of the themes that emerged in a series of upcoming blog posts.
There were so many discussions, offers of help, ideas, and plans for the future that it’s hard to pick out just one benefit that came from the conference.
But to my mind, the overarching mood is expressed in the following two tweets:
— Alaveteli (@alaveteli_foi) May 19, 2015
We can share the strategies that have worked in other places. When you have problems let the community know #Alaveteli15
— Alaveteli (@alaveteli_foi) May 19, 2015
It’s the idea of Alaveteli as not just a piece of software, but a genuine community, with the ability to support its members. The idea that, working together, we can identify and overcome difficulties.
Putting faces to names, listening to stories—and yes, sharing a cerveza or two over the two days of AlaveteliCon—really helped to consolidate that idea.
A lot of enthusiasm was born in Madrid: long may it last.