1. Tuderechoasaber.es


    A Right-to-Know site for Spain

    Tuderechoasaber.es is Spain’s brand new Right-to-Know site, built on Alaveteli. The project is managed by David Cabo and Victoria Anderica, and it launches against a fascinating political background.

    When the project was started, Spain was one of four EU countries with no Freedom of Information law. The subject was, however, on the political agenda – FOI had been promised, but not delivered, by the previous government in both 2004 and 2008. On election in December 2011, the new conservative ruling party again pledged to introduce Freedom of Information, within their first 100 days in office.

    Anderica works at the organisation Access Info Europe, which had been campaigning, with the support of NGOs including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, for a Freedom of Information law. Cabo is one of the founders of Civio, a new organisation hoping to emulate the work of mySociety or the Sunlight Foundation, in Spain. The combination of Access Info and Civio’s knowledge – legal and technical – meant that Tuderechoasaber.es could become a reality.

    There was such public thirst for these withheld rights that Cabo and Anderica were able to fund their website through crowdsourced donations. They raised €6,000 and the site was built.

    Tuderechoasaber (“Your Right to Know”) launched on the 22nd of March 2012, just a day before the Government opened a public consultation on Freedom of Information (just inside that 100-day deadline). Their promise has now been fulfilled and Spain finally has its Right-to-Know law.

    Meanwhile, Tuderechoasaber welcomed more than 11,000 visitors during the first two days it was live. 180 requests were sent – never mind that they slightly preceded the Freedom of Information law actually coming into existence.

    Practicalities of launching a Right to Know site

    Launching a site like Tuderechoasaber might seem an impressive task, and undoubtedly, much work has gone into it – and will continue to do so.

    But it may be more achievable than you think. We asked David a few questions, and here are his thoughts on the matter:

    How long did the Alaveteli installation/site build take?

    It didn’t take long at all. I was familiar with Alaveteli, as I had developed AsktheEU.org already, so the whole technical work was done over a couple of weeks by myself, while campaigning and coordinating other stuff.

    Setting up the server took a couple of days max, and I spent a few more days redesigning the front page and a few other things: we want/need to give the site a more dynamic look, including regular news and encouraging people to support other users’ requests. Most people in Spain don’t know what FOI is or how it’s used, and that includes the public servants, so we need to be more aggressive to get responses.

    How simple or otherwise did you find it? What were the major hurdles (from a development point of view) that you had to overcome?

    Easy. Development-wise there were no big issues; we’ve uncovered a few caching bugs, but that’s about it.

    Adding the blog posts and pictures on the frontpage is a bit of a hack right now, but no big deal. 90% of our time has been talking to media and public bodies, before and after the crowdfunding. Oh, and coordinating the translations and volunteers.

    How much time is the day-to-day running of the site taking at the moment, and how much time do you anticipate spending, after the initial publicity dies down?

    Too early to know how it will look once it’s settled. It’s a week now since launch, and although the media focus has moved a bit away from FOI (there was a general strike today about job market reform) we’re now getting 2K users a day. So far we have 270 requests, which is way more than we expected.

    There’re 8000 city councils in Spain, plus the regional and national bodies, so the day-to-day work now – which is taking two people a few hours a day – is finding more contact details. We expect to have a couple of part-time volunteers handling support, and two part-time journalists writing about what happens on the site.

    Could anyone take the plunge and run a site like this, or are there certain qualities you think it’s necessary to have?

    Legal understanding of the FOI situation in their country seems essential to me. We couldn’t have built this without Access Info. Apart from that, I don’t think the technical or operations requirements are too complex. Of course, being active in civil society and/or having a community of interested users definitely helps to get the site moving.

    Would you mind being contacted by others considering building an Alaveteli site?

    Sure, that’s fine, happy to talk about it by email or Twitter. [If you’d like to take David up on this generous offer, find him in the first instance on Twitter at @dcabo.]

    What is Alaveteli?

    Alaveteli is one of our Platforms. Install it, and you can create a Freedom of Information website like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, which we run in the UK.

    Alaveteli websites work like this:

    • Users can contact public authorities with requests for information.
    • The sites publish those requests, and the resulting responses.
    • Or if there is no response, they make that fact known.

    No right to Freedom of Information? Launch anyway

    The right to Freedom of Information varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: in many countries it is enshrined by law. In others, there is no such law.

    In both scenarios, we encourage people to set up Alaveteli sites.

    Why? Because one of the core tenets of running an Alaveteli site is that we believe it should reflect how the law should work, not how it does.

    As an example, our site WhatDoTheyKnow.com allows users to contact several bodies which are not actually subject to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act – and many of them do reply to requests made through the site.

    Additionally, when we launched the site, there was no prior example of putting responses to Freedom of Information requests into the public domain. Because we believe in the benefits of transparency, we went ahead and did so anyway.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in the context of the UK having a Freedom of Information law, but there is nothing to stop you from launching a site even where such a law does not exist.

    Find out more about Tuderechoasaber

    Find out more about Alaveteli

  2. Platforms and Components: mySociety’s tools for you to re-use

    Keen on the idea of setting up a mySociety-style site like FixMyStreet.com or WhatDoTheyKnow.com? Not sure what you need? Then read on.

    At mySociety, we’re working really hard to create software tools that are attractive and easy to set up in diverse countries, cities and regions. Now we want to make sure everyone knows what we offer, and how it can be useful. This is a beginners’ guide to what mySociety can offer in the way of software tools.

    First up, the basics:

    • All our code is open source.
    • Some of our code is available in simple-to-use packages.
    • There are two types of package. We call them Platforms and Components. This post is about explaining the difference.


    You can think of Platforms as flat-pack websites – like furniture that arrives in a cardboard box, with all the screws, instructions and tools included. Our Platforms provide everything you need to replicate a site like FixMyStreet.com or WhatDoTheyKnow.com in your own country, city or region, but you need to do a little work to get it up and running.

    Platforms are great for people who don’t want to spend a long time reinventing the wheel, and who want to get a basic, functional site up and running as fast as possible.

    We provide the software, and you just need to add:

    1. Data to populate it
      For example, if you’re setting up a website using the FixMyStreet platform, you need the names and email addresses of every bit of government that you want to send reports to. (This isn’t as daunting as it might sound – it might just be one authority and one email address! And if not, well, we’ve had lots of success with crowd-sourcing this sort of information).
    2. A server to host it on
      We can help you here, if it’s a problem for you. See step 1 on this page.
    3. Enthusiastic people to run it
      Don’t forget this vital consideration! Computers are great, but they can’t do everything themselves. You will need people – volunteers or paid staff – to promote, improve, and interact with the users of your website.

    The following platforms are available to download and install:

    • FixMyStreet
      For reporting common street problems such as potholes or broken streetlights. Creates transparency about local government, at the same time as providing a practical service to users.
    • Alaveteli
      Our Freedom-of-Information Platform. Whether or not your country has a Right to Know law, this Platform lets people ask questions to public authorities, – and it publishes all the conversations online.
    Please note, at the moment these Platforms are not easy enough for anyone to install: you will need some technical knowledge. However, we are working all the time to make it easier to set up websites built on these platforms, and we have mailing lists and IRC channels where you can ask for help. These are linked to from the Alaveteli and FixMyStreet Platform homepages.
    Components are handy code modules that you can incorporate into any website build, saving yourself an awful lot of time and effort. They’re the result of mySociety’s years of experience in building tools that work (and refining those that didn’t work as well as we wanted them to).
    At the moment, we reckon our Components will be of most use to people building Parliamentary Monitoring websites, like our site TheyWorkForYou.com, or the Kenyan site Mzalendo.com.

    If Platforms are like a flat-pack piece of furniture, Components are more like the parts of a kitchen. When you have a kitchen built, you get to choose from a number of parts that fit together: cupboards, drawers, shelves, etc. You can ignore things you don’t want, and add in things you do – and you end up with a kitchen that suits your needs.

    Components will save you a lot of time because you won’t need to create database structures, APIs, search mechanisms, admin interfaces, and so on. Just slot in a Component – like you might slot in a dishwasher – and it’s all done for you. We’ve done our best to make them easy to deploy, easy to customise, and easy to connect together.

    You will definitely need technical skills, although we are working on lowering that barrier. Components cannot run on their own – they need a website to fit into. And just as with our Platforms, you’ll need data. But you don’t need a server – we host the Components ourselves.

    Right now we just have one component which is fully documented and ready to use, but we’re working on followups right now. This component is called MapIt.

    • MapIt 
      MapIt is a web service which you can use to work out which boundaries a point or postcode exists within. An essential foundation for geographic lookups of all kinds. You can play with the UK instance here. We use it on:

      • Our parliamentary monitoring website TheyWorkForYou.com. Users are shown their own MP’s data even if they don’t know who that MP is – all they have to do is input their postcode.
      • Our ‘contact your representative’ site WritetoThem.com. Users input their postcode and are shown everyone who represents them, from local to European level.
      • Our street problem-reporting site FixMyStreet.com. It sends problem reports to the relevant local council, based on the co-ordinates of where the problem was reported.

    We are also working on a new component for building Parliamentary Monitoring Websites on top of, called PopIt. It isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, but if you join the Poplus email list, you can follow progress.


    Where can I get these Platforms and Components ?

    They’re all on Github, as is all our code (including a lot that we haven’t made easy to re-install yet). As it’s open source code, you can take them for free.

    If you want to use MapIt, or learn about our future components, please sign up for the Poplus mailing list at the same time – it can be an invaluable place to get support when you have questions. You can also improve the code – sharing your improvements with us is a great way to say thank you. Plus, if you have ideas for other Components that will work well with ours, we’d love to hear about them.

    What next?

    We don’t just build this stuff, we also help people install and run it. Keep in touch and let us know how you’re using our code, and what is or is not working. If you hit any problems, there is always someone who can help.

  3. A guide to Alaveteli

    Arrow by Arjecahn

    Image by Arjecahn

    We’ve put together a simple guide to Getting Started with Alaveteli. It consists of just seven steps.

    At step one, your Freedom of Information website is nothing but a dream. By step seven, you’ll be the proud owner of your very own version, providing a valuable service for your country’s citizens!

    What is Alaveteli?

    Alaveteli is our platform that allows anyone to run their own Freedom of Information website – like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but tailored to your own country’s Right To Information system.

    If you’re considering setting up your own site, it’s inevitable that you’ll have all sorts of questions. We want to be with you every step of the way, to answer all your questions and offer help where you need it.

    We’ve made Alaveteli as simple as possible, because we want anyone to be able to use it, without needing much technical knowledge.

    So our guide is for everyone, including people who have never before launched their own website (if you have bags of experience, you should read it too – it’s still useful!)

    It answers pressing questions like:

    • How long does it take to create an Alaveteli site?
    • How many people do I need to help me, and how do I find them?
    • What technical skills are needed?
    • How do I get the site translated into my own language?
    • Should I launch with a big bang?
    • How many hours a week will I be dedicating to the site, once it’s live?

    If you want to know the answers to those questions, go and read it! And if you still have questions, please let us know. We’ll add more detail as it’s asked for.

    If you’re technically confident, you should also head to our Alaveteli developers’ guide. Plus you will want to sign up to our Alaveteli mailing list, where you can discuss all things Alaveteli, and get advice, support and the answers to all your questions.

  4. AlavateliCon – the world’s first global conference of FOI hackers

    AlaveteliCon will be the world’s first gathering of FOI hackers from around the world.

    Ask Questions by Christina B Castro

    On 2nd and 3rd April, over 50 people from 30 different countries will come together in Oxford, UK – from as far and wide as Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Albania. This diverse bunch of people will have one thing in common – they’re all building Freedom of Information websites, based on our Alavateli platform.

    What is Alaveteli?

    It’s the easily-accessible, open-source codebase that allows anyone to run an FOI website like WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own country.

    When we launched WhatDoTheyKnow in 2008, our main focus was getting the site up and working for the UK. Its aim was simple: anyone can use the site to make an FOI request to a public body, and the whole correspondence is published online.

    And it works – over 100,000 requests have been made to more than 5,000 authorities in the intervening four years.

    It soon became apparent that people in other countries wanted to replicate WhatDoTheyKnow – and as an open-source organisation that favours governmental transparency everywhere, we’re very glad to help.

    The trouble is, the original codebase from WhatDoTheyKnow.com wasn’t very replicable. It was built for the UK political system, and it couldn’t be easily picked up and tailored to another country – not without a lot of hard work*.

    And so Alaveteli was born, in a project led by mySociety developer Seb Bacon. You might think of it as the second generation WhatDoTheyKnow – built with international implementation in mind. Alaveteli can be shaped to any country’s FOI laws, translated into any language, and installed with minimal technical knowledge.

    Why a conference?

    In the five months since Alaveteli was launched, it has been installed in six different jurisdictions, with three more in active development, and several others on the way. As each international website has taken shape, two things became clear to us:

    • Every jurisdiction has its own idiosyncratic FOI laws, leading to a unique set of issues,

    and at the same time:

    • Every install of the codebase brings up certain universal issues, that will apply to anyone in any jurisdiction.

    In the spirit of these two opposing truths, we are bringing people together at AlaveteliCon. We want to share knowledge and stories, answer questions and ask them, too.

    There will be practical hands-on sessions; there will be discussions about the future direction of the platform; and there will, above all, be an opportunity to forge an Alaveteli community, members of whom know one another by sight rather than through a mailing group.

    It sounds great – can I come?

    At this moment, the conference is fully-booked. However, you can put your name on our waiting list in case of cancellations.

    Meanwhile, don’t despair – we’ll be posting photos and summaries of all the sessions on the Alaveteli blog.

    Now I’m all excited about Alaveteli – can I install it for my own country?

    Yes! As a first step, we suggest you join the Alaveteli mailing list and introduce yourself. Reading the Alaveteli blog is also a good idea, if you’d like to get some idea of what’s involved.

    *It is worth noting that several coders in other countries did so anyway, with a lot of hard work.

  5. Read our Guide to Getting FixMyStreet in your City, Country or Region

    FixMyStreet.com is mySociety’s popular British site for reporting problems like broken street lights and holes in the road. It works because as well as recording reports online, it sends copies to the relevent local governments. It has inspired many ‘grandchildren’ around the world.

    Today marks the start of a new era for FixMyStreet as we push out the start of a major design upgrade in Britain, aimed particularly at making the mobile web experience as good as the desktop web experience.

    Simultaneously, we’re also launching a guide to using the FixMyStreet Platform as the basis for your website in other countries.

    • We’ve set up a new homepage for the FixMyStreet Platform.
    • We’ve set up a new mailing list which you can join if you want to talk with us and with other users.
    • We’ve published a brand new guide, suitable for technical and non-technical readers, about how and why you should consider using the FixMyStreet Platform to build your FixMyStreet-style website

    We’re also here, waiting and ready to give you a hand. So if you’ve ever thought about setting up FixMyStreet outside Britain, there’s no better time to start than today.

  6. Avoid Dead Ends

    If you conduct yesterday’s exercise a few times, it’s fairly likely you’ll encounter a common problem with most websites: the dead-end page. Someone has progressed along one of the many paths through your site, and now they’re at a page where they can go no further. This, very simply, should never be allowed to happen.

    Now, I’m not talking about the ever-present get-out-of-jail-free card of a standard header or footer that always lets people get to some of your key starting points again — that’s not progressing: that’s simply going back to the beginning. No, I’m talking about harnessing the momentum someone already has. Someone is merrily moving through your site, sufficiently engaged to actually click links and do/discover more, rather than just bouncing straight back out to somewhere more appealing. If they get to a page where there’s nothing obvious to do, or nowhere obvious to go next, then you’ve lost them.

    There are two main ways out of this problem. The second, more indirect approach, which I’ll talk about in more detail later, is simply to make sure that everything that could be a link is one. But ideally you should also have something much more direct and obvious that you want people to do from this page. You site may be super tightly focussed, with only one thing it’s trying to drive every visitor towards. Or there might be lots of options. Either way every page should be clearly and explicitly helping people towards at least one goal — and it should be obvious to anyone looking at the page what that is.

    If someone is simply browsing at your site out of curiosity, you don’t even necessarily need to drive them towards some other form of action yet — you can simply provide them more options to go deeper, or view other similar pages. One particularly effective, but often-overlooked option is to let them sign up for alerts when something new happens — when there’s new information on this topic, or when a person concerned does something else, or even just when someone adds a comment to the page. The options will differ depending on what the page is, but the key underlying approach is the same absolutely everywhere: after someone is done with this page, make sure there’s something obvious for them to do next.

  7. Every Page Counts

    When building a website most people give most attention to the front page. After all, that’s probably the page that will be viewed most often ((Although, if most of your traffic comes from google searches, or deep linking from other sites, both of which we’ll talk more about later, that may not even be true)). One or two other key pages probably get quite a lot of care and attention too. But after that there’s usually a sharp drop-off, with many pages looking like they were simply knocked up in 15 minutes by a developer who hasn’t had his morning coffee fix yet.

    This is often the cause of the great disconnect between what you and your friends think of your site, and what the rest of the world thinks of it — you judge your site by its best bits, but people who actually use it judge it by its worst. When it comes to a great user experience, every page matters.

    A well known large corporation, renowned for making job applicants go through many, many rounds of interviews, uses one of those interviews in a very simple and effective way. In it the interviewer takes one single point mentioned on the candidate’s CV/resumé, and quizzes them on it in-depth for an hour. The vast majority of people have something in there that, even if it’s not an outright lie, is still somewhat embellished, or wishful thinking — maybe an exaggerated account of what they achieved at a previous job, or a skill they haven’t actually used since that one job 10 years ago, or an interest that’s really been dormant since college. Pretty much everyone has something in there that’s unlikely to withstand an hour of deep questioning.

    On a semi-regular basis you should carry out a similar process for your site. Whether this is something you’re actively in the process of building right now, or something that’s been running happily for 10 years, pick a single page, grab everyone you can (and maybe some pizza) and spend a hour digging into it in painful detail.

    Look at it in several different ways. Print it out and hand it around — some copies in colour, some in black and white. Blow it up on a big screen or projector. Look at it on a mobile phone. Listen to it on a screenreader. Even look at it upside down. Can people tell at a glance what page it it is? How do people get there — both from within the expected flow, and also from elsewhere: do people come to it from Google searches? If so, for what? Has anyone ever linked directly to it from Twitter? Why? What can you do on the page? Where can you go next?

    If you have real facts and statistics about all these things that’s good (you should!), but don’t look at them until after you’ve discussed what you think the results will be. Then try to work out why the answers are different (they will be). Try to look at the page through fresh eyes. Then go find some people who’ve never used the site and see how their fresh eyes differ from yours. Don’t even tell them what the site is: what can they tell just from looking from this page? If they found themselves on this page, what would they think they should do? Why does that differ from what you think they should do? If this was the only page they ever saw, what would they think of your organisation? Does it entice them to want to discover more, or do more? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and return to Facebook as quickly as possible?

    Again, if your TODO list doesn’t grow dramatically from this exercise, you’re doing it wrong.

  8. What is Usability?

    If you want your site to be successful, how usable it is is much more important than what features it has. By that I don’t mean that usability is important, and is something you really need to consider and spend time on. No, I mean it’s completely vital — it should be where the vast majority of your work goes.

    There are many different ways of thinking about what usability actually means, but for now we’re going to take one very simple approach: it’s a measure of how easy it is for someone to use your site who isn’t already a domain expert. If you’re building a Freedom of Information site, can someone who has never even heard of Freedom of Information clearly and easily do what you want? If you’re tracking Members of Parliament, what does your site look like to someone who actively hates politics, and knows nothing at all about the Parliamentary system, or what bills are, or hasn’t even the faintest clue what MPs actually spend their time doing? For every page you build, you need to step back, look at it like a first-time visitor, and ask: does this explain what the page is about, why I’m here, what I’m meant to do now, how I can find out more, etc., or does it assume I’m already an expert?

    In the vast majority of cases, the primary reason you are building the site in the first place is because the official sites already act like everyone is an expert, and NGO sites assume everyone wants to become an expert. Your goal is to build a site that non-experts can use.

    This is far from easy. The chances are you’re already an expert yourself — and if you’re not, then you’ll probably become one in the process of building the site. And once you’re an expert, everything makes sense to you. It’s hard to go back and pretend like everything is foreign to you again.

    But it’s OK for this stuff to be hard. Even if you go to the gym every day you’re not going to see much effect if you only spend 5 minutes there doing things that are easy. Usability design is the same: what every page of your site does; how every element of it hangs together; what the things are that someone can do next — these are tough questions. If each of these decisions is easy to make, you’re almost certainly going to have no effect. You’ve simply built a site that’s good for you, but bad for your users.

    There are many approaches you can take to do this sort of thing better, and we’ll be talking about lots of them here. But finding out how well you’ve actually done it is remarkably easy. Simply get three people who haven’t used your site before, and who aren’t experts in your area, and persuade them to spend five minutes using your site while you watch. Don’t tell them anything about the site in advance — especially not what the site does (it’s really easy to make that mistake whilst trying to persuade them to help you!) Just ask if they’ll spend a few minutes with this new website you’re working on, and talk out loud about what they’re doing (or trying to do) as they go. You can’t answer any questions they ask — in fact you can’t say a single thing. All you can do is listen, and watch.

    If paying attention to how each of those people interacts with your site doesn’t give you thousands of dollars worth of advice you’re either already one of the best usability designers in the world, or you’re doing it wrong.


  9. Who Is Your Audience?

    Today we consider another of the deep questions that must lie behind any site: who is your audience?

    This is, again, a seemingly simple question, but which often exposes a lot of unchecked assumptions or faulty thinking. In part this is because it’s really two questions, often confused, closely related, but with very different answers: Who can use your site, and Who will use it.

    The difference is subtle, but worth thinking through, because too often people don’t take the time to figure this out and end up with the opposite to what they hope for.

    You’re never going to get a site that everybody will use, but you want to build a site that anybody can use.

    Too many people aim at everybody ((I’ve seen proposals that expect 90% of the adult population of their country to be using their site within a year)), and end up with something that’s only usable by lawyers, or journalists, or political wonks, or FOI geeks, or people who are already activist supporters of whatever you’re trying to do.

    Those people should certainly be part of your audience, but your job is to go much broader than that ((unless you’re explicitly targeting only that niche, in which case you’re almost certainly not part of my target audience here.)). To be successful your site needs to be usable by people who aren’t already your supporters, who don’t understand all your technical language or the inner workings of your political, governmental, or legal structures, and (more importantly) don’t want to understand that, and shouldn’t need to.

    It is, of course, much harder to build sites like that. But that’s what we’re here to discuss. I’m sure we’ll return to some of these deep metaphysical questions from time to time, but next week we’re going to get into much more practical hands-on User Experience issues.

  10. What Are You Doing?

    Yesterday our metaphysical enquiries took us to the question of who you are. Today we stay in that general area with a high level “What Are You Doing?”

    This should be an easy question to answer, but I’m surprised by how often it isn’t. I encounter this a lot when I review funding proposals: often they fall into something akin to the underpants trap.

    Groups are often highly effective at describing a problem in their society that they hope to address ((often in way more detail than needed as if people are going to disagree that the highlighted issue is a Bad Thing)), but then they jump right into explaining the functionality of the website they’re going to build, skipping completely over the crucial middle step of how that’s going to help.

    I used to think that it must just be self-evident to the groups how the site they’re describing will solve the problem, and that I’m just being incredibly dense by not be able to discern that part, but I’ve seen this enough times now, and had enough follow-up “clarifying” conversations to realise that a lot of times, groups simply have no idea what they want their site to actually do. They (usually) know what they want the end result to be in society, but not how their project will help get them there. In fact they often seem to not even realise that these are two different things — their goal is no more nuanced than “Solve this problem”. And thus we end up with lots of sites with nothing but a vague approach of “raising awareness”, and no way for anyone to actually get involved or help move in the required direction ((other that like-ing, retweet-ing, +1-ing etc which might help raise more awareness, but won’t get you any closer to your goal unless all these people can actually do something)).

    This sort of website is fundamentally no different to handing out leaflets in the street — it may be slightly more efficient or cheaper or easier to reach a wider audience, but it doesn’t take advantage of any of the disruptive abilities of the web. It’s like a bookstore spending millions of dollars on online advertising to promote its mall store, as it has no online shopping facilities. And even most old-skool activist groups figured out a long time ago that leaflets are much more effective if they try to get someone to do something, rather than just educating people about a problem.

    Now, lest you misunderstand my point here: I’m not talking about adding a highfalutin “Theory of Change” section to your proposal. I certainly think having such an idea is valuable ((and Aaron Schwartz does a great job contrasting change-driven approaches from action-driven ones)), but I’m talking about something much simpler — being able to explain clearly what someone using your site will be able to do there.

    To take a common example, let’s say your area of interest is Freedom of Information in your country. Most countries have at least one NGO working in this area, monitoring how well government establishments are responding to information requests etc., and producing regular reports, full of complex tables and pretty bar charts. Then they decide to build a website. The default approach seems to be little more than taking the quarterly reports and put them online, maybe with a whole new educational section on how you can make your own requests.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com, on the other hand, has been hugely successful, and hugely disruptive, because it took an entirely different direction. The vast majority of people don’t care about Freedom of Information statistics — and that’s not simply because of the sorts of quantitative vs qualitative things us FOI nerds like to argue about, but because to most people, the only thing that really matters is whether they can successfully obtain information when they need to.

    And it turns out that catering to those people — removing as many barriers as possible (both technical and psychological) and making it as simple as possible for them to make a request, and layering on some extra transparency-driven-embarrassment incentives for government officials to actually provide the information, or for other users of the site to help when they don’t — not only makes them happy, but can very quickly snowball into something which has huge impact on the entire culture of access to information across your country in the process.

    The trap of “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it” is seductive, and as easy for activists and NGOs to fall into as it is for governments. So make sure you take the time to understand what your something is, and then spend even longer trying to make it a better thing.