When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
We recently explained how to use pre-written Freedom of Information requests for a campaign. We’re glad to see this being used by AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site for Europe.
Today, AskTheEU launches a campaign to request the travel expenses of EU Commissioners — and they are calling on the public to help submit a total of 168 requests.
No matter what your feeling are towards the EU (let’s not even go there), we hope that everyone is in favour of transparency. AskTheEU’s campaign follows the discovery from a request that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent €63,000 on an air taxi to Turkey for the G20 summit. Naturally, they were keen to know whether this level of spending is replicated across the organisation.
After a two-year battle, AskTheEU’s parent organisation Access Info has established that the European Commission will provide information on Commissioner’s travel expenses, but only in two-month bundles.
They’ve already made a start: after submitting legal appeals and new requests, Access Info won access to a handful of documents about the travel expenses of five Commissioners: these can be seen here.
But there’s plenty more to discover, and that’s where the general public comes in. Thanks to the pre-written requests function, all the hard work is already done: it’s just a matter of picking one or two time periods and submitting the already-composed request.
Anyone can participate by going to the campaign website from today. All requests and responses will be made public on AsktheEU.
Remember the UK General Election? Yes, we know it’s a distant memory now, and you’ve probably forgotten YourNextMP, too. But the project is far from dormant!
YourNextMP successfully crowd-sourced information on every election candidate, and made it available as open data for anyone who wanted to use it to build useful websites and online tools.
And while here in the UK we won’t have further use for it until 2020, the great news is that the underlying code can be repurposed to work for other elections around the world. Thanks to Yo Quiero Saber, the first of these is now live and collecting data for Argentina at http://investigacion.yoquierosaber.org/, and there are also plans for DataMade Chicago to use it in the USA.
In Argentina, the crowdsourcing component sits as part of a wider voter informing project. Martín Szyszlican from Yo Quiero Saber explains more:
We just launched Yo Quiero Saber and it’s had a great reception. You’re welcome to visit our main site, where we feature the game and full profiles for candidates for presidency and governors of four provinces.
You can also see our YourNextRepresentative instance (we renamed it, since MP is not a relevant term for us) where, in just two weeks, we’ve already had more than 100 registered users, and have also managed to add all the official candidates from DINE (the national elections office).
We’re still missing city-level and provincial-level candidates from the site, but that’s going to be improved before the October general elections.
So far, we’ve had 350,000 unique users and a million page views since launch. That means we are close to reaching 1% of the total number of voters in the country. Neatly, the number of people who have used the site is roughly equivalent to the number of voters a party needs to pass from this election to the next ones.
Media reception has been great with online portals big, small and regional mentioning our site and some of them embedding our game in their articles. We’ve also been kept busy with radio interviews and some tv programmes featuring the game. In Argentina, the media is deeply split down party lines, and we very much like the fact that we’ve surfed that divide, being featured in media from both sides of the political spectrum.
This is just the beginning: we’re working as an alliance of local NGOs, and our bid for a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation has been successful, meaning that we can forge ahead with our plans. We’ve also had support from HacksLabs, a data journalism accelerator. The full list of partners can be found on the footer of both sites.
We’re really glad to hear of this success—it’s great to see the code get another lease of life, which is, of course, what the Poplus project is all about.
Naturally, the YourNextRepresentative codebase also available to other countries who want to help inform their electorates, and what’s more, Martín says they’ll be glad to offer help to anyone who wants it. That goes for us here at mySociety too.
Take a look out of the window. How would you rate the view, on a scale of one to ten?
Your response can probably tell us a little about the beauty, or otherwise, of the area around you. That’s the premise that ScenicOrNot, one of the mySociety sites that we recently stopped running, was founded on. Happily, ScenicOrNot has now found a home and will continue under new ownership: more about that in a future blog post. Meanwhile, we’d like to celebrate it with a potted history.
An exercise in crowdsourcing, ScenicOrNot served up a series of random images, each representing one square kilometre of Great Britain, and invited users to rate them (the images were sourced from the Geograph project, itself a fascinating open source repository). The results fed into a database of ‘scenicness’.
ScenicOrNot collected that data and also permits anyone to download it, under an Open Data Licence, for their own ends.
What was it for?
To understand why we made ScenicOrNot, you have to go back to the beginnings of our transit-time mapping technology, Mapumental.
Mapumental shows journeys in terms of how long they take, and it was intended to help people make decisions about where to live, work, or go on holiday. We’d figured out how to display bands of public transport journey times, but we knew that those weren’t the only factors that feed into such important life choices.
House prices, average salaries, and, yes, the beauty of the surrounding area all have a part to play. We wanted to be able to add them to Mapumental so that users could get a really rounded picture.
But while there are public databases for house prices and average salaries available, until the creation of ScenicOrNot, there was no such thing for scenicness. There was just one solution: we would have to make our own.
‘Hot or Not’ for scenery
Rather than go and look at every part of the country ourselves, it was time to harness the wisdom of the crowd.
ScenicOrNot, the building of which was managed by the Dextrous Web, launched in 2009. It served users with an unending random series of images showing landscapes from around the country, and was an early foray into both crowdsourcing and gamification for mySociety.
Rating images, as also seen in Kittenwar (and other, less fluffball-centric sites like HotOrNot) is a pleasingly compulsive activity, and within just a few months, every kilometre of the country had been rated at least once.
And as time went by, we reached a critical milestone: the project amassed a minimum of three votes for each image, helping to ensure that the results were less likely to be skewed by eccentric or unusual opinions about what makes a place scenic.
Slotting ScenicOrNot into Mapumental
We now had our ‘scenicness’ data, and house price and salary data from other sources. The decision we made about how to incorporate these data sets was an important one which has worked well for subsequent Mapumental projects like the work we did for the Welsh government, or for the Fire Protection Association.
Effectively, you can think of each data set as a map layer, which may be slotted in our out, as needed. Our showcase site Mapumental Property demonstrates this – it’s effectively the vanilla transit-time Mapumental, with a house price layer (from Zoopla) added in.
A new lease of life
If we hadn’t found a new owner for ScenicOrNot, we’d have shut it down. Happily, though, it’s found a new home and a whole new purpose: we’ll be explaining more about that in our next blog post.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are over 180 parliaments in the world — but what percentage of their members are female?
The crazy thing is, there’s no definitive figure*.
So we created Gender Balance, an easy game that crowd-sources gender data across every parliament in the world. Try it! We hope you’ll find it fun.
Gender Balance isn’t just an enjoyable way to fill half an hour, though: users will be helping to build up a dataset that will be useful for researchers, campaigners, politicians, and sociologists. As the results emerge, we’ll be making them available in an open format for anyone to use, to answer questions like:
- Which country has the highest proportion of women in parliament?
- Do women vote differently on issues like defence, the environment, or maternity benefits?
- Exactly when did women come into power in different countries, and did their presence change the way the country was run?
Gender Balance’s underlying data comes from another mySociety project—EveryPolitician, a database which aims to collect information on every politician in the world.
And while it’s nailing down those stats on gender balance across every country, Gender Balance also aims to be a showcase of what can be done with the open data from EveryPolitician. That data is free for anyone who wants to build tools like this, and it’s easy to use, too. Find out more about that here.
*While the Inter-Parliamentary Union does collect figures, they are self-reported, often out of date, and only cover its own members.
The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge offers funding to innovative projects. We wonder whether they’ve ever had a bid whose collaborators span six different countries before.
You can read more about the plans on the bid page—and please click the little pink heart to give us ‘applause’!
In short, we want to build on the success that the YourNextMP crowdsourcing platform has had here in the UK.
Right now, YourNextMP offers open data on every candidate for the UK general election. That data is being used by major media companies and internet giants, and underlies several innovative online tools. On top of that, it’s getting thousands of visits every day from people who simply want more information about who’s standing in their area.
With some modification, other countries could use the same tech in advance of their own elections, giving their citizens the same opportunities to become more informed about those standing, and to develop still more useful online tools.
This is a ‘Yay for Poplus’ moment
Because Poplus is an international federation of organisations with similar needs, we can come together to forge plans that will benefit all of us, and then work together to make them a reality.
Our plans wouldn’t just benefit those six countries, either. Like every bit of Poplus tech, it’d be available as open source software for anyone to use, anywhere in the world. And that’s what Poplus is all about: maximum impact from every bit of code.
Join the Poplus mailing list to find out more about Poplus activities
Give some applause to our Knight Foundation News Challenge bid
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.
It’s been a while since we updated you on the progress of our next major project, FixMyTransport, but we’re still working hard behind the scenes. As you may recall, FixMyTransport will deal with public transport problems – delayed trains, vandalised stations, overcrowded buses, you name it. It’ll put problems in the public arena, while also reporting them directly to the relevant transport operator. Read more about the project here.
We will shortly be arriving at our final destination
Things are going to get exciting very soon. As launch date approaches, we’ll be starting a closed beta (mid July), rapidly followed by a full open public beta launch (end of July). During the closed beta we want to get as much feedback as possible from future users of the site, as well as pressure groups, transport operators, and anyone else who has anything valuable to contribute.
If you would like to be invited to beta test, and weren’t one of our alpha testers, please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. Alpha testers will, of course, be invited to test again.
Mind the (data) gaps
We got extremely useful feedback from our alpha testers, and a wealth of crowdsourced data from our community. Thanks to their efforts we now have contact details for the operators of about 50% of the routes in the UK. However, this leaves a lot of operators where we don’t know how to get in touch.
We really need your help to get them! If you can spare a few minutes, visit our spreadsheet and see if you can fill in any of the missing details.
The more contact details we can get hold of, the better experience FixMyTransport will offer to our users. As well as publishing passengers’ reports on the site, FixMyTransport sends them directly to the operators too, helping to get the issue fixed.
So, we especially need the email addresses for operators’ customer services departments. Finding these may be as simple as visiting the operators’ websites, or it may require a bit of sleuth-work on your part. If advanced Googling gets you nowhere, we’ve found that simply phoning head office can get results.
Incidentally, the main operators are near the top of the sheet – those are the ones that will benefit the most users, although obviously the nearer completion we get, the better.
You’ll notice that the spreadsheet now includes a non-obligatory column for your name: this is to offer a small incentive. If you want to, tag your entries and at the end we’ll be offering goodies to the top contributors. Depending on your preference, this might be one of our highly sought-after mySociety hooded tops (they’re snuggly!), or a chance to become more involved in the project.
Those who helped in the first iteration, please note that although this sheet looks different, your details have been retained and indeed have been extremely useful as we build the site. Also – if you have already been a major contributor during our previous rounds of testing and data collecting, please holler so that we can give you proper credit.
Hold tight, please
Not long now… we hope you’re as excited as we are.
Ever got a problem fixed by reporting it on FixMyStreet? Written to your representative via WriteToThem? Here’s an opportunity to pay the favour forward to someone stranded on a wet Wednesday by the non-arrival of the number seven bus.
We’ve reached the point in FixMyTransport development where we can start asking for your help. We need to fill in the information we’ll use to report people’s transport problems to the companies that run bus and train routes. If you have five minutes to spare, please spend them adding a contact email address or two for your local bus companies to this spreadsheet:
…then you can bask in the glory of a karmic balance restored*.
* Will also work if you accidentally ran over a kitten on your way to work this morning.
Matthew’s just updated ScenicOrNot, the little game that we built to provide a ‘Scenicness’ dataset for Mapumental, to include a data dump of the raw data. The dump will update automatically on a weekly basis, but currently it contains averaged scores for 181,188 1*1km grid squares, representing 83% of the Geograph dataset we were using, or 74% of all the grid squares in Great Britain. It is, in other words, really pretty good, and, I think, unprecedented in coverage as a piece of crowd sourced geodata about a whole country.
It’s available under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3 Licence, and we greatly look forward to seeing what people do with it.