1. Alaveteli Pro: batch requests, a news story, and going international

    Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.

    Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.

    Batch work

    The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.

    We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).

    Getting results

    We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.

    Further afield

    But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.

    In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.

    We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.

    While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.

    mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.

    Next up

    We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.

    Photo by Amador Loureiro (Unsplash)

  2. Visualising transparency, for AllTrials

    You may know Dr Ben Goldacre from his ‘Bad Science’ and ‘Bad Pharma’ campaigns, which fight misinformation around medicine. Ben has just launched his latest project, the AllTrials Transparency Index — and mySociety helped with the website side of things.

    The AllTrials campaign focuses around the fact that a shockingly large proportion of clinical trials do not have their results publicly published.

    Not only does this devalue the time, goodwill and even potential risk put in by participants, but there are also issues around bias. Those trials published tend to be the ones which show positive results: if that doesn’t sound like such a terrible situation to you, try playing this game from the Economist magazine, which graphically depicts the problems with skewed coverage. At worst, such selective publication can be dangerous, or lead to poor choices from bodies making medical purchasing decisions.

    Transparency and data visualisation are two areas where mySociety has a long history, and so it came to be that we fashioned the deceptively simple AllTrials Transparency Index site, on which anyone can browse the transparency index of the world’s major drug companies, and dive in deeper to the data to see how it was compiled. The source data is free for others to download too, so anyone can integrate it into other projects.

    All Trials transparency ranking

    AllTrials are also tracking whether companies register new trials:

    AllTrials graph, showing registered trials

     

    That’s the part that anyone can understand — and now, notes for the more technically-inclined who may be wondering how we took the data on each drugs company and presented it in a way that can be quickly and easily taken in.

    This is an ongoing campaign with a commitment to future audits, so we wanted to make it easy for the AllTrials team to update the site and republish the source data each time they do.

    It’s a static Jekyll site. We wrote a custom plug-in to parse a CSV and produce a page for each company within that CSV, as well as creating some summary data that feeds into the graphs on the front page.

    This data is then pulled from the CSV, and D3 is employed to build the graphs and insert them into the generated pages.

    The end result is a site that looks good and which can automatically update whenever the underlying data changes. We hope we’ll have played a small part in helping to ensure that it does — and for the better.

    All Trials company profile


    Header image: Komu News (CC by/2.0)

  3. WhatDoTheyKnowPro: ready for beta users

    If you’ve been watching the progress of our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists, you might be interested to know that we are now accepting applications for pre-launch access.

    Successful applicants will have an early opportunity to put the service through its paces. WhatDoTheyKnowPro will launch as a paid-for service, but as a beta tester you’ll have up to a year’s access for free, because we’re keen to see how you’ll use it — and to hear your feedback on which features are useful.

    What’s WhatDoTheyKnowPro?

    WhatDoTheyKnowPro is our first launch of Alaveteli Professional, accessed via the WhatDoTheyKnow website and specifically for UK users who utilise FOI in their work or campaigning.

    It’s the first instance of the service we plan to make available to other Freedom of Information sites running around the world on our Alaveteli platform.

    What you’ll get

    Since we last caught up with Alaveteli Professional, we’ve made really concrete progress with several of the features that, at the time of that blog post, were just entries on our long to-do list.

    Here’s what users will access:

    • The ability to keep requests private until your story has been published
    • A powerful private dashboard that helps you track and manage your FOI projects
    • A super-smart to-do list that makes it easier to follow the progress of your requests
    • Action alerts that nudge you when it’s time to take the next step in a request

     

    screenshot-requests-78dd427b981787204f3ddfe4eda11cb1939e93263d29398d309b48f14cdb1be2  screenshot-dashboard-34a9936fd33b54729b033c322bc1bc360116ae85b2d4fec5182dd22f58283745
     

    Batch benefits

    And very soon, we’ll also be carefully rolling out the batch request features, which will allow you to:

    • Make one request to multiple authorities
    • Manage large volumes of responses and easily keep track of the status of each request
    • Get regular updates as the responses come in, without overwhelming your inbox

     
    screenshot-batch-list-7f71f614b844db3686cc6731d7725aec10e244dc327f88b5c87c02382b6f6d71 screenshot-batch-selection-d59dda9d21302f321502c8033a254a27e6cb3f2579c4ac16c5f8006eed2a43ac

     

    We’re excited about the batch feature in particular, and we know that many of our prospective users are, too. At the same time, we’ve heard some concerns that it might encourage a scattergun approach that wastes authorities’ time.

    Our planned development will ensure that people use this feature responsibly, and, consequently, get the best returns from it. This will include a prompt to send a smaller batch initially, so that the remainder of the requests can be refined based on the quality of information that is returned — there’s nothing worse that asking every council in the country for information and then realising that you’ve worded your question in a way that means you can’t use the resulting data!

    At the moment, batch requests can’t be made on WhatDoTheyKnow without help from the site administrators. We’re aware that many journalists and activists already make many batch requests outside WhatDoTheyKnow for this very reason. We’d like more of these requests to be released in public (we estimate that around 15% of UK FOI requests are made via our site): so by including this capability in WhatDoTheyKnowPro, we hope we’ll not only be steering people to use those powers sensibly, but that much more information will also end up in the public domain — maximising its usefulness.

    Apply for free access

    If that all sounds exciting, then apply here. We’d love to hear how you plan to use WhatDoTheyKnowPro.

  4. FixMyStreet version 2.0

    bureau of street traffic

    The FixMyStreet codebase is used all over the world by people running versions of the site for their own country or jurisdiction. This week, we’re proud to announce the release of FixMyStreet version 2.0.

    This version contains a wide array of new features that benefit FixMyStreet sites’ users, administrators, and the officials who receive reports. They include elements that the UK FixMyStreet was the first to trial, such as nicer-looking HTML emails for users and authorities, the ability to filter reports by multiple states and categories, a new admin user system with graduated permissions, and various bugfixes and development improvements.

    Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts over on fixmystreet.org/blog/, examining the changes in detail. If you run a FixMyStreet site, or you’re just interested in coding and technical issues, you may find them of interest. Meanwhile, here’s the broad overview.

    New front-end features

    • HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.

    • State/category filtering and sorting of list pages: When viewing a list of reports, you can now filter and sort them in pretty much any way you choose, including sorting by most- or least-recently updated, newest or oldest, or most commented. You can also select multiple categories or states (e.g. “fixed”).

    • Pretty area highlighting on body pages: The highlighting of areas on a body page has been inverted, so that the unimportant parts of the map are shaded and you can interact more easily with reports on the page.

    • Users can now update their own email address This was a frequent request from users and we’re glad to report that they can now do it themselves on their account page.

    • Performance improvements: When looking at reports from a list page, the other report pins stay visible so that it is easier to switch between them. The report itself is being pulled in behind the scenes, meaning the whole page does not need to reload. The map no longer extends underneath the sidebar and header, which makes things easier, and a scroll wheel can now zoom the map in and out.

    • Making privacy options clearer: The reporting form has been separated into public and private sections, to make it clearer which parts of what you provide will be made visible on the site.

      Showing the relevant recipient: If you live in an area where there’s more than one body, the category you pick normally dictates which body we send your report to. Now, when you select the category we update the name of the body given at the top of the report page, if we know that the report will be sent there.

    New admin user system

    Admin users can now use the same log-in right across the site – whether they’re making a report like a standard user, or logging in to make edits and moderate the site.

    In the past, the distinction between admin and other users was black and white. As an admin user, you had access to every part of the site, but users can now be given individual permissions for various layers of access. These include:

    • Proxy users This layer grants the ability to create a report or update on behalf of a body, or as another user. We envisage this being useful in a body’s contact centre, where they receive a report over a phone and enter it into FixMyStreet as that user;
    • Report editors Giving the power to edit a report’s category, state, or location. If the admin user changes the category, and that change means that a different body is now responsible for the report, it will be re-sent;
    • List makers, who can compile their own shortlist of reports they wish to go and inspect. This may be useful for a contractor or team who wishes to compile the day’s tasks;
    • Quick responders These users have access to response templates, allowing them to edit and publish templated updates;
    • Prioritisers These users may set different priorities on reports;
    • Trusted users A simple reputation system, which e.g. potentially lets reports from trusted users be actioned more quickly.

    The admin report edit form has also been greatly improved, including a map to update a report’s location (and re-sending the report if the body changes), and much tidier layout.

    Bugfixes and development changes

    Bugfixes include updating the top-level domain (TLD) list for email validation, hiding authorities which don’t exist any more on the all reports page, and fixing the previously-broken photo preview display after form submission. We have dropped support for Internet Explorer 6.

    If you’re a re-user of the codebase, there are a number of changes that will hopefully help you out. See the extended version of this blog post on fixmystreet.org for more details.

    If you have any questions, or problems installing the code, please do get in touch, or post on our mailing list.

  5. A new Sass workflow for Alaveteli theming

    We recently made some changes to our Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, that makes it twice as easy for partners to change the look and feel of their site. This post goes quite in-depth, so it’s probably best suited for designers, developers and other technically-minded readers


    This year we embarked on a ground-up redesign of Alaveteli’s theming capabilities to make customising Alaveteli easier and faster. We used a mixture of techniques to try to achieve this and since releasing the update we’re happy to have seen a decrease in the complexity of our themes, and the time we spend making them.

    Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform is one of our most deployed software packages and each deployment requires some customisation, from simple branding changes to complex functionality to support a country’s FOI process. This is either done internally by our own developers, or our partners take this on themselves.

    An Alaveteli deployment consists of two things, the core: the guts of Alaveteli with no customisations, and the theme: the aesthetic and functional customisations made to each site. We ship Alaveteli with a fully-featured base theme that gives partners a good starting point to work from, but they can also start their own theme from scratch.

    After talking to our partners and the Alaveteli team we felt that the process of theming was too complicated and involved. It required a lot of knowledge of Alaveteli’s inner workings, was coded in a way that made it hard to understand, and almost always required the intervention of a front-end expert, even to make trivial changes.

    Our vision for how Alaveteli’s theming should work was:

    • Intuitive Front-end developers and designers should be able to follow and understand the templates without needing expert knowledge about Alaveteli’s inner-workings.
    • Flexible Overriding Alaveteli’s core code should be easy, so a theme should use low-specificity, componentised code to enable this.
    • Supportive Should a partner decide to only change a few colours, or embark on a large-scale redesign Alaveteli, the theming process should never get in the way.

    How we did it

    Using the tools we have

    Alaveteli is built on Ruby on Rails, so our first goal was to make better use of Ruby on Rail’s template inheritance.

    Firstly, we split all of the Sass files into logical components.

    Each component has two associated Sass files, a layout.scss and a style.scss. layout.scss describes only layout of a component, e.g. the physical dimensions and position on a page. style.scss describes the styles, for example typefaces, colours, borders and other presentational properties.

    Should a partner wish to totally redesign or replace a component, they can replace both files with their own. Alternatively they can just choose to replace one part of the component, for example keeping the layout, but replacing the styles.

    Ensuring the lowest possible specificity

    When customising Alaveteli we want to be sure that a partner never has to fight with the base theme to achieve their goals. The most important part of this is to ensure CSS styles are easy to override.

    Firstly we removed all ID selector’s from Alaveteli’s stylesheets and replaced them with class selectors, giving us a good jumping off point as class selectors have much lower specificity than IDs. We then rewrote and refactored Alaveteli’s CSS using the Block Element Modifier methodology (BEM).

    BEM helped us in two ways: it’s written in a way that makes CSS self-describing, for example the code snippet .header__navigation__list tells us that this list is a child of the navigation element and a grandchild of the header element.

    As well as this, using a single class to define the styles for this element means that using BEM gives our styles the lowest possible specificity, so partners can override them with little resistance.

    Using a settings partial

    All of our theme’s styles use the variables defined in _settings.scss when referencing colours, typefaces, spacing, and even logo files so the bulk of Alaveteli’s customisation can be done in our base theme’s settings partial _settings.scss.

    This allows partners to make simple changes which have a huge impact on the look and feel of the site. We’ve found that the large majority of our theme customisation can be done by just changing the variables in this file and it has sped up the theming process markedly.

    Impact

    We’ve quietly rolled out these updates to Alaveteli over the past 12 months and the impact of the changes has been encouraging.

    Internally, we’ve found our theming projects are faster and more efficient. We conservatively estimate that it takes half the time to make a new theme than it used to.

    Thanks to the self-documenting nature of BEM and the styles encapsulated in our settings partial, Alaveteli theming requires a lot less understanding of the platform’s inner workings. Our partners are able to be more self-sufficient and rarely require our intervention to assist with simple customisations.

    Maintenance and support of our themes is greatly simplified, as the structure is consistent across projects, we’re able to roll out further changes and fixes in a more predictable way.
    Overall, we’re really happy with how the changes worked out and the things we’ve learnt from this project we’ll be carrying into our others too, so look out for changes like across our work in the future.

  6. Introducing EveryPolitician’s bot

    mySociety’s EveryPolitician project aims to make data available on every politician in the world. It’s going well: we’re already sharing data on the politicians from nearly every country on the planet. That’s over 68,652 people and 2.9 million individual pieces of data, numbers which will be out of date almost as soon as you’ve read them. Naturally, the width and depth of that data varies from country to country, depending on the sources available — but that’s a topic for another blog post.

    Today the EveryPolitician team would like to introduce you to its busiest member, who is blogging at EveryPolitician bot. A bot is an automated agent — a robot, no less, albeit one crafted entirely in software.

    First, some background on why we need our little bot.

    Because there’s so much to do

    One of the obvious challenges of such a big mission is keeping on top of it all. We’re constantly adding and updating the data; it’s in no way a static dataset. Here are examples — by no means exhaustive — of circumstances that can lead to data changes:

    • Legislatures change en masse, because of elections, etc.
      We try to know when countries’ governments are due to change because that’s the kind of thing we’re interested in anyway (remember mySociety helps run websites for parliamentary monitoring organisations, such as Mzalendo in Kenya). But even anticipated changes are rarely straightforward, not least because there’s always a lag between a legislature changing and the data about its new members becoming available, especially from official national sources.
    • Legislatures change en masse, unexpectedly
      Not all sweeping changes are planned. There are coups and revolutions and other unscheduled or premature ends-of-term.
    • Politicians retire
      Or die, or change their names or titles, or switch party or faction.
    • New parties emerge
      Or the existing ones change their names, or form coalitions.
    • Areas change
      There are good reasons (better representation) and bad reasons (gerrymandering) why the areas in constituency-based systems often change. By way of a timely example, our UK readers probably know that the wards have changed for the forthcoming elections, and that mySociety built a handy tool that tells you what ward you’re in.
    • Existing data gets refined
      Played Gender Balance recently? Behind that is a dataset that keeps being updated (whenever there are new politicians) but which is itself a source of constantly-updating data for us.
    • Someone in Russia updates the wikipedia page about a politician in Japan
      Wikidata is the database underlying projects like Wikipedia, so by monitoring all the politicians we have that are also in there, we get a constant stream of updates. For example, within a few hours of someone adding it, we knew that the Russian transliteration of 安倍晋三’s name was Синдзо Абэ — that’s Shinzo Abe, in case you can’t read kanji or Cyrillic script. (If you’re wondering, whenever our sources conflict, we moderate in favour of local context.)
    • New data sources become available
      Our data comes from an ever-increasing number of sources, commonly more than one for any given legislature (the politicians’ twitter handles are often found in a different online place from their dates of birth, for example). We always welcome more contributions — if you think you’ve got new sources for the country you live in, please let us know.
    • New old data becomes available
      We collect historic data too — not just the politicians in the current term. For some countries we’ve already got data going back decades. Sources for data like this can sometimes be hard to find; slowly but surely new ones keeping turning up.

    So, with all this sort of thing going on, it’s too much to expect a small team of humans to manage it all. Which is where our bot comes in.

    Hello bot

    portrait of bot

    To be honest with you, the bot doesn’t really look like this because, being software, it’s entirely non-corporeal. Sorry.

    We’ve automated many of our processes: scraping, collecting, checking changes, submitting them for inclusion — so the humans can concentrate on what they do best (which is understanding things, and making informed decisions). In technical terms, our bot handles most things in an event-driven way. It springs into action when triggered by a notification. Often that will be a webhook (for example, a scraper finishes getting data so it issues a webhook to let the bot know), although the bot also follows a schedule of regular tasks too. Computers are great for running repetitive tasks and making quantitative comparisons, and a lot of the work that needs to be done with our ever-changing data fits such a description.

    The interconnectedness of all the different tasks the bot performs is complex. We originally thought we’d document that in one go — there’s a beautiful diagram waiting to be drawn, that’s for sure — but it soon became clear this was going to be a big job. Too big. Not only is the bot’s total activity complicated because there are a lot of interdependencies, but it’s always changing: the developers are frequently adding to the variety of tasks the bot is doing for us.

    So in the end we realised we should just let the bot speak for itself, and describe task-by-task some of the things it does. Broken down like this it’s easier to follow.

    We know not everybody will be interested, which is fine: the EveryPolitician data is useful for all sorts of people — journalists, researchers, parliamentary monitors, activists, parliamentarians themselves, and many more — and if you’re such a person you don’t need to know about how we’re making it happen. But if you’re technically-minded — and especially if you’re a developer who uses GitHub but hasn’t yet used the GitHub API as thoroughly as we’ve needed to, or are looking for ways to manage always-shifting data sets like ours — then we hope you’ll find what the bot says both informative and useful.

    everypoliticianbot-small
    The bot is already a few days into blogging — its first post was “I am a busy bot”, but you can see all the others on its own Medium page. You can also follow it on twitter as @everypolitbot. Of course, its true home, where all the real work is done, is the everypoliticianbot account on GitHub.


    Images: CC-BY-SA from the EveryPolitician bot’s very own scrapbook.

  7. Unpicking code, for the good of the project

    Last year, when we were helping to develop YourNextMP, the candidate-crowdsourcing platform for the General Election, we made what seemed like an obvious decision.

    We decided to use PopIt as the site’s datastore — the place from which it could draw information about representatives: their names, positions, et cetera. We’d been developing PopIt as a solution for parliamentary monitoring sites, but we reckoned it would also be a good fit for YourNextMP.

    That turned out to be the wrong choice.

    YourNextMP was up and running in time for the election, but at the cost of many hours of intensive development as we tried to make PopIt do what was needed for the site.

    Once you’ve got an established site in production, changing the database it uses isn’t something you do lightly. But on returning to the codebase to develop it for international reuse, we had to admit that, in the words of mySociety developer Mark Longair, PopIt was “actually causing more problems than it was solving”. It was time to unpick the code and take a different approach.

    Mark explains just what it took to decide to change course in this way, over on his own blog.

    The post contains quite a bit of technical detail, but it’s also an interesting read for anyone who’s interested in when, and why, it’s sometimes best to question the decisions you’ve made.

     

    Image: Michelle (CC)

  8. Apply for support and development help

    There are websites built on mySociety code in many countries across the world.

    If your country doesn’t already have one, perhaps you’re thinking of setting up a FixMyStreet site for your area, or maybe a Freedom of Information site run on Alaveteli?

    Possibly you’re looking at WriteInPublic or YourNextRepresentative.

    Whatever the site you’re planning, you’ll find it a lot easier with our support and development help.

    Our quarterly call for applications closes on October 30, so make sure you have yours in soon. Want to know exactly what’s involved? Start here.

     

    Image: Damian Gadal (cc)