Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.
We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.
It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.
This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.
In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.
Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.
Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.
Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s report, highlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.
The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.
Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.
Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.
Practical Next Steps
The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.
We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.
This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.
From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;
- Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
- Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
- Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints
As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.
We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public health teams, policy-makers, councillors and NGOs often need facts about a specific area. If they’re looking for data on things like the number of smokers, the demand for hospital beds, or the birth rate, they turn to their regional Health and Wellbeing Board.
These local authority committees are required to produce a document known as a JSNA (Joint Strategic Needs Assessment) every few years. It’s a snapshot of the demographics and healthcare needs of the local population, and is used by a variety of stakeholders including policy makers and strategy groups.
Like most local authority committees, the London Borough of Hackney and the City of London Health and Wellbeing Board have previously produced their JSNA as a simple read-only PDF document. But, in the digital age, they knew that there was more they could do to make this document accessible, useful, and engaging.
That’s when they called us in — not to build the final digital version of the JSNA, but to help them understand the possibilities and ensure that they were heading down the right path.
We’ve written up the whole process in a case study, so, if you’d like to know more, read on.
If you live almost anywhere in the UK, you can use FixMyStreet to report problems to councils.
The vast majority of councils have no problem with this, and they do a good job of responding to and dealing with reported problems. A bunch of councils even like the service enough that they’ve actually become clients, paying for customised versions that sit on their own websites.
But there have always been a small number of councils that have said ‘no dice’ to FixMyStreet: they either refuse to accept reports at all, or they tell FixMyStreet users to re-submit problems through another channel. Today the total number in the ‘no thanks’ column stands at ten councils – that’s out of about 430 in total.
Idealism versus Pragmatism
Recently we had a bit of a debate about what to do. On the one hand we want users to succeed in getting their problems fixed. But on the other we don’t want councils to simply opt out of the transparency and convenience that FixMyStreet offers.
We could digress into a long post with many other related issues, but today we’re simply talking about how we have decided to change the user interface for users trying to report problems to the minority of councils that claim not to be able to cope.
What to expect if you report a problem in the unlucky 2% of the UK
In order not to leave you high and dry, we’ll provide a link to the council’s own reporting system—because, irrespective of the platform, your report still needs to be made.
But we don’t think that this situation should be quietly accepted, by us or by our users, especially since it means some councils get to simply opt out of transparency about problem handling.
So at the same time we’re telling a user how to report the problem, we’ll also invite them to tweet about it, and/or contact their local councillors.
Why the situation arose
You may be wondering why some authorities won’t accept our reports. We do not, after all, ask councils to adapt or modify their internal systems in any special way, unless they actively want to adopt the Open311 standard.
The messages our users generate are just plain text emails, and they go into the same email inboxes as any other message to a council would.
These reports are carefully appended with lots of useful details, too, including the category of the problem, its exact longitude and latitude, and the postcode or street address where available. Users can also attach photos.
Generally the reason cited for not accepting such email reports (or the same reports made by the industry standard Open311 API) is that the computer system inside the council can only handle problems reported via the council’s own official web interface. Why this is only a problem in 2% of councils is a mystery that remains to be solved.
Does your council accept FixMyStreet reports? Input your postcode on the site, and see if you get the alert. If not – there’s no problem.
This is a problem we have been warning about for some time. Islington Council were fined £70,000 for a similar incident in 2012. In light of this fresh incident we again urge all public authorities to take care when preparing data for release.
As with the Islington incident, the information was in parts of an Excel spreadsheet that were not immediately visible. It was automatically published on 14th November when Hackney Council sent it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the normal operation of the WhatDoTheyKnow website. All requests sent via the website make it clear that this will happen.
This particular breach involved a new kind of hidden information we hadn’t seen before – the released spreadsheet had previously been linked to another spreadsheet containing the private information, and the private information had been cached in the “Named Range” data in the released spreadsheet.
Although it was not straightforward to access the information directly using Excel, it was directly visible using other Windows programs such as Notepad. It had also been indexed by Google and some of it was displayed in their search previews.
The breach was first hit upon by one of the data subjects searching for their own name. When they contacted us on 25th November to ask about this, one of our volunteers, Richard, realised what had happened. He immediately hid the information from public view and notified the council.
We did not receive any substantive response from the council and therefore contacted them again on 3rd December. The council had investigated the original report but not understood the problem, and were in fact preparing to send a new copy of the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow site, which would have caused the breach to be repeated.
We reiterated what we had found and advised them to consult with IT experts within their organisation. The next day, 4th December, we sent them a further notification of what had happened, copying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As far as we are aware, this was the first time the ICO was informed of the breach.
From our point of view it is very disappointing that these incidents are still happening. Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow are a small fraction of all requests, so it is very likely that this kind of error happens many more times in private responses to requesters, without the public authority ever becoming aware.
Our earlier blog post has several tips for avoiding this problem. These tips include using CSV format to release spreadsheets, and checking that file sizes are consistent with the intended release. Either of these approaches would have averted this particular breach.
We would also urge the ICO to do as much as possible to educate authorities about this issue.
You may be familiar with WhatDoTheyKnow, our website which simplifies the process of making a freedom of information request.
mySociety also provides the underlying software as a service for councils: it sits on the council website, templated and branded to fit their site’s style. When someone submits a request, it goes directly into the council’s own back-end processes.
Just like WhatDoTheyKnow, the system publishes all requests, and their answers, online. This helps the council show a commitment to transparency – it also has the effect of cutting down on duplicate requests, since users can browse previous responses.
Brighton and Hove Council are the first council to implement the software.
Now, ordinarily, when we sign off a new project for a client, we write up a case study for our blog. But this time, we were delighted to read an interview by Matt Burgess on FOI Directory, which has done all the hard work for us. With Matt’s permission, we are reproducing the piece in full.
The number of Freedom of Information requests public authorities receive is generally rising and central government dealt with more requests in 2012 than in any year since the Act was introduced. One council has decided to try and open up access to their requests using custom software from mySociety.
Brighton and Hove City Council have implemented a custom version of the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website where more than 190,000 requests have been made.
The council hope it will allow others to easily browse requests that have been made and make them more accountable.
We spoke to council leader Jason Kitcat about why the council decided to implement the new system – which was soft-launched at the beginning of November.
Why did you decide to implement the new system?
JK: I personally, and we collectively as a Green administration, believe passionately in openness and transparency. That’s the primary motivation. So digital tools to support making it easier for citizens to access council information I think are strongly in the interest of our city and local democracy.
We also were seeing an increase in the number of FOI requests, many of them similar. So using a system like this helps people to find the information that’s already published rather than submitting requests for it, when it’s actually already been published.
How does it work?
JK: It’s a customised version of the mySociety WhatDoTheyKnow site, delivered by mySociety for us in the council’s branding. It allows anyone to submit their FOI request in a structured way through the web and others can see the requests and any responses. The requests are linked in with the main WhatDoTheyKnow site to help further reduce duplication of requests and enable consistent commenting.
Behind the scenes it also offers workflow management to assist the council team who are responding to the requests.
What benefits will the system have to those answering and making FOI requests?
JK: It opens up the process, helps others to see what is going on even if they aren’t making requests themselves. Particularly important is that it by default puts requested information out there on the web without any more effort by the council or those making the requests.
Were there any obstacles in setting the system up and how much did it cost the council?
JK: Obstacles were mainly stretched resources within the council to prepare for the changed workflow, making sure our information governance was ready for this and that our web team could support the minor integration work needed.
Given this is a web-based ’software as a service’ offering it’s pretty straightforward to implement in the grand scheme of things. I don’t have the final costs yet as we’ve been doing some post-launch tweaks but, as is the way with nimble organisations like mySociety, I think pricing is very reasonable.
Do you think it will improve the council’s performance in responding to FOI requests and make the council more transparent to the public?
JK: Yes absolutely. Not only will the council’s FOI performance be more publicly accountable but I’m hoping we can reduce duplicate requests through this so that our resources are better focused.
Would you say it has been worth creating and why should other public authorities follow suit?
JK: Yes it’s worth it. I think we as councils have to be ever more open by default, use digital tools for transparency and relentlessly publish data. I believe this will result in better local democracy but also is one of the ways we can truly challenge cynicism in the whole political system.N.B.: The website current shows a large number of requests that appear to be unanswered. We asked about these and it includes the number of historic requests that were loaded into the site.————————————Many thanks to Matt of FOI Directory for allowing us to reproduce this interview in full.
WhatDoTheyKnow is mySociety’s Freedom of Information site. You can use it to make FOI requests, and it publishes them – and the responses you receive – for everyone to see.
You might think that making a Freedom of Information request is something that only journalists or investigators do. But actually, one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s aims is to show that anyone can access this right. If there’s something you want to find out, and the information is held by a public body, WhatDoTheyKnow makes it very easy for you to request it.
WhatDoTheyKnow is mySociety’s most-visited site, with around 100,000 people viewing the information on it every week. Not all of those people make FOI requests, but they are all benefiting from the information uncovered by those who do.
And who are those ‘people who do’?
Jonathan works for a digital company in Brighton, as a project manager. He first became aware of WhatDoTheyKnow at a local conference on open data in the city.
I make FOI requests as a Brighton citizen. Mostly I ask about data that is held by the council. For example, I’ve recently made requests about parking revenue, council pay levels – that sort of thing.
These are topics that are of clear interest to everyone in the city – but why does he make these requests?
It is about getting the data into the public domain to start an informed debate.
Public authorities don’t always provide data that is requested (and not always because they are being difficult, or inefficient – there are a number of situations where they are not obliged to). So, has Jonathan received the information he has asked for?
The most important data that I have asked the council to release has been refused. But I am still hopeful they will eventually release it.
All of mySociety’s websites hope to lower the barriers to civic participation; we hope that we encourage people to access channels of communication that they may never have previously considered open to them.
In Jonathan’s case, he says that if WhatDoTheyKnow wasn’t available, he would have made his requests by email – he’s already switched on to the existence and potential of the FOI act. But, he says, WhatDoTheyKnow is “a fantastic resource”.
When information is requested via email, it stays almost entirely hidden from view, unless the recipient chooses to publicise it. But on WhatDoTheyKnow, information becomes fully visible to everyone – all part of starting that ‘informed debate’ that Jonathan mentioned.
Thanks very much to Jonathan for telling us how he uses WhatDoTheyKnow.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
- See also: FixMyStreet user, Steve and WriteToThem user, Kate.
- If you are a regular user of any of our sites, do drop us a line – we’d love to profile you too.
mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is used to make around 15 to 20% of FOI requests to central government departments and in total over 160,000 FOI requests have been made via the site.
Occasionally, in a very small fraction of cases, public bodies accidentally release information in response to a FOI request which they intended to withhold. This has been happening for some time and there have been various ways in which public bodies have made errors. We have recently, though, come across a type of mistake public bodies have been making which we find particularly concerning as it has been leading to large accidental releases of personal information.
What we believe happens is that when officers within public bodies attempt to prepare information for release using Microsoft Excel, they import personally identifiable information and an attempt is made to summarise it in anonymous form, often using pivot tables or charts.
What those working in public bodies have been failing to appreciate is that while they may have hidden the original source data from their view, once they have produced a summary it is often still present in the Excel workbook and can easily be accessed. When pivot tables are used, a cached copy of the data will remain, even when the source data appears to have been deleted from the workbook.
When we say the information can easily be accessed, we don’t mean by a computing genius but that it can be accessed by a regular user of Excel.
We have seen a variety of public bodies, including councils, the police, and parts of the NHS, accidentally release personal information in this way. While the problem is clearly the responsibility of the public bodies, it does concern us because some of the material ends up on our website (it often ends up on public bodies’ own FOI disclosure logs too).
We strive to run the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website in a responsible manner and promptly take down inappropriately released personal information from our website when our attention is drawn to it. There’s a button on every request thread for reporting it to the site’s administrators.
As well as publishing this blog post in an effort to alert public bodies to the problem, and encourage them to tighten up their procedures, we’ve previously drawn attention to the issue of data in “hidden” tabs on Excel spreadsheets in our statement following an accidental release by Islington council; one of our volunteers has raised the issue at a training event for police FOI officers, and we’ve also been in direct contact with the Information Commissioner’s office both in relation to specific cases, and trying to help them understand the extent of the problem more generally.
Some of our suggestions:
- Don’t release Excel pivot tables created from spreadsheets containing personal information, as the source data is likely to be still present in the Excel file.
- Ensure those within an organisation who are responsible for anonymising data for release have the technical competence to fulfil their roles.
- Check the file sizes. If a file is a lot bigger than it ought to be, it could be that there are thousands of rows of data still present in it that you don’t want to release.
- Consider preparing information in a plain text format, eg. CSV, so you can review the contents of the file before release.
The local press in Islington has just reported the accidental release of quite a bit of sensitive personal data by Islington council.
One of our volunteers, Helen, was responsible for spotting that Islington had made this mistake, and so we feel it is appropriate to set out a summary of what happened, to inform journalists and citizens who may be interested.
On 27th May a user of our WhatDoTheyKnow website raised an FOI request to Islington Borough Council. On the 26th June the council responded to the FOI request by sending three Excel workbooks. Unfortunately, these contained a considerable amount of accidentally released, private data about Islington residents. In one file the personal data was contained within a normal spreadsheet, in the two other workbooks the personal data was contained on four hidden sheets.
All requests and responses sent via WhatDoTheyKnow are automatically published online without any human intervention – this is the key feature that makes this site both valuable and popular. So these Excel workbooks went instantly onto the public web, where they seem to have attracted little attention – our logs suggest 7 downloads in total.
Shortly after sending out these files, someone within the the council tried to delete the first email using Microsoft Outlook’s ‘recall’ feature. As most readers are probably aware – normal emails sent across the internet cannot be remotely removed using the recall function, so this first mail, containing sensitive information in both plain sight and in (trivially) hidden forms remained online.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only mistake on the 26th June. A short while later, the council sent a ‘replacement’ FOI response that still contained a large amount of personal information, this time in the form of hidden Excel tabs. As you can see from this page on the Microsoft site , uncovering such tabs takes seconds, and only basic computer skills.
At no point on or after the 26th June did we receive any notification from Islington (or anyone else) that problematic information had been released not once, but twice, even though all mails sent via WhatDoTheyKnow make it clear that replies are published automatically online. Had we been told we would have been able to remove the information quickly.
It was only by sheer good fortune that our volunteer Helen happened to stumble across these documents some weeks later, and she handled the situation wonderfully, immediately hiding the data, asking Google to clear their cache, and alerting the rest of mySociety to the situation. This happened on the 14th July, a Saturday, and over the weekend mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees swung into action to formulate a plan.
The next working day, Monday 16th July, we alerted both Islington and the ICO about what had happened with an extremely detailed timeline.
The personal data released by Islington Borough Council relates to 2,376 individuals/families who have made applications for council housing or are council tenants, and includes everything from name to sexuality. It is for the ICO, not mySociety, to evaluate what sort of harm may have resulted from this release, but we felt it was important to be clear about the details of this incident.
Since its launch in 2005, WriteToThem has always covered all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Northern Ireland Assembly was the first body added to TheyWorkForYou after the UK Parliament, in late 2006. So whilst we certainly have not ignored Northern Ireland, it had always been an irritant of mine (and a cause of infrequent emails) that FixMyStreet only covered Great Britain.
This was due to the way it had originally been funded and set up, but those issues were in the past, due to a myriad of changes both internal and external, and it was now more a case of being able to find the resources to implement the necessary work. Late last year, mySociety worked with Channel 4 on the website for their series of programmes on The Great British Property Scandal. This used, in part, code similar to FixMyStreet to let people report empty homes, and it was required to work in all parts of the UK. So as part of that process, code was written or generalised that let aspects of FixMyStreet like the maps and place name lookup work for Northern Ireland locations.
It’s taken a few months since then to allocate the time, but we’ve now been able to take the code written back then, add various other bits, and incorporate it into FixMyStreet – which now covers the 26 councils of Northern Ireland, and the central Roads Service. Issues such as potholes, graffiti, and broken street lighting can be reported to Antrim or Newry and Mourne as easily as Aberdeen or Wyre Forest, and just as in the rest of the UK you can sign up for alerts based around your location or to your council.
How do you get everyone working together when the community needs it most – like when there’s a heavy snowfall?
Recently, we posted a conversation with Chris Palmer of Barnet Council, where he talked about integration of FixMyStreet with the council website.
Barnet also use another mySociety tool – Pledgebank – and Chris explained how it helps them within the Barnet communities.
Turning complaints into action
“We took on Pledgebank in the belief that the council needs to get out of people’s way. Online communities are good at complaining about things: it’s easy to get instant outrage on the web, and actually we need mechanisms that allow people to get together creatively.
“One of the issues we had during the heavy winter of 2010 was that people complained the council wasn’t coming round and clearing their paths. Well, the council never came round and cleared the pavement outside those particular houses.
“Many people said, well if the council allowed us to, we would do it ourselves. Pledgebank allowed us to get parents at 25 schools to sign up last year. They pledged to come and spread grit and clear the snow from outside just in return for free shovels and a ton of grit.
“That kind of thing encourages residents to be active, it frees them from the frustrations that the political system gives them. If people feel, ‘Oh, there’s a legal process stopping me doing this’, it moves the council forward, to being an enabler rather than a provider of services.
“A parent can spend 15 minutes in the morning and then be confident their child will be at school for the day and that they can go off to work, so for the parents, it’s win-win.
“One of the things that surprised us was the response of local residents who live in the street but don’t necessarily have children at the school. They felt that they should be helping to clear the snow. It gave a group of active residents who we hadn’t even asked, a chance to be involved”.
Tapping into community interest
Why do you think that is? Is it just that people just want to contribute within their community?
“I genuinely think people just aren’t interested in councils. I couldn’t tell you the name of my council leader where I live, never mind the name of cabinet members. However, I am very interested in the services the council provides: the only public meeting I’ve ever been to was about parking, because it directly affected my street. And I’d probably say there’s a rule, where people will take responsibility for the space outside their own house, and be prepared to extend that a few houses either side. And this just gives people a mechanism to be involved in their local community.
“With Pledgebank, we can leave people to do things amongst themselves, with the understanding that the council is not just a provider of services, but a catalyst to people doing those things themselves”.
What else have you done with Pledgebank?
“We’re hoping residents will play a part in keeping their streets tidy with our Adopt-a-Street scheme. There’s a real sense of ownership if somebody controls the green space outside their house: do they plant the bottom of trees in the street with wild flowers, do they plant bulbs in what’s currently a grass verge? We can give them that element of ownership, and give them control of their local environment.
“So with Adopt-a-Street, we found one or two people locally with an interest in doing it, and we’re looking now at how we encourage them to leaflet their neighbours, get in contact with their neighbours.
A challenge for the marketing department
“It’s worth adding, though, that Pledgebank has taken us a lot of learning. It’s quite easy to imagine that anything you bung up on the web suddenly becomes viral: it doesn’t.
“One of the challenges for us is how we link into what we’re doing, how we publicise what we’re doing with Pledgebank and the web. So we have to look at it not so much as, here’s an interesting web device, but here’s a device that enables residents to do things. But the council has a responsibility to publicise it.
“The key challenge for us is making information available to the relevant people. It’s all about defining communities, and making information available to those communities – and mySociety has been tremendously helpful with that.
“It’s changed the way we’re using our information now and it’s fair to say it’s informed how we’ve built our new website.”
Barnet have been inventive with Pledgebank. As well as using it during the snows, they’ve managed street parties for the Jubilee and Royal Wedding; got volunteers to give IT training to residents; and encouraged visits to carehomes.
If you’re from a council and you think Pledgebank might work for you, drop us a line to find out more.
Image credits: Snow Big Dig by Shashi Bellamkonda, Lakeside Daisy by Matt MacGillivray, and Diamond Jubilee Street Party on Kenyon Clough by Dave Haygarth, all used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.