1. Come and see Finnish Freedom Of Information cartoonists

    Think Freedom of Information is a bit of a dry topic? Not when you mix it with some exuberant inky comic art, it’s not!

    Two Finnish cartoonists, Siiri Viljakka and Lauri Tuomi-Nikula, are visiting the UK to speak about their comic book Last Words. This graphic novella imagines one of the founding fathers of Freedom of Information, Anders Chydenius, returning from the grave to see how his ideas are surviving in the modern world.

    Siiri and Lauri will be speaking at four informal meet-ups in London, Brighton and Hastings — entry is free.

    Image: Siiri Valjakka and Lauri Tumoi-NikulaArtwork: Siiri Viljakka & Lauri Tuomi-Nikula

    If you’d like to hear Siiri and Lauri speaking about comics, FOI, and how the two can interact, you can register now at no cost.

    At the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday events, the talk will focus mainly on comics with a side order of FOI.

    At Citizen Beta on Tuesday, it will be the other way around, with Siiri and Lauri fitting in among other speakers on the topic of FOI and civic technologies – full details here. So take your pick, depending on how you prefer your arts/civic rights balance!

    The trip has been made possible by generous donations from several people via a crowdfunder. Thanks to everyone who donated, but special thanks to Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, the Hastings 1066 Country Cartoon Festival, and my dad 🙂

  2. Informing ourselves: what we learned at AlaveteliCon 2015

    AlaveteliCon – the conference about online Freedom of Information technologies – took place in Madrid last week.

    It was an opportunity for people who run sites based on our FOI software Alaveteli (as well as other FOI platforms such as Frag Den Staat and MuckRock) to come together and share experiences, frustrations, solutions—and the kind of anecdotes that only FOI site implementers can truly understand.

    It was also a fascinating snapshot of FOI laws around the world, and how digital tech is enabling the shoots of FOI to germinate in a variety of places, many of them previously closeted. It was inspiring, helpful and a refreshing reboot for practitioners, many of whom are fighting against quite considerable difficulties in their attempts to provide access to information.

    We heard from delegates from countries as diverse as Rwanda, Australia, Uganda, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Spain, and many more. As we heard of each country’s specific problems, we also learned, conversely, that many of our challenges are much the same everywhere.

    Resources

    Over the next few weeks we will be sharing videos, photos and further blog posts, but for now you can get a taste of AlaveteliCon 2015 for yourself in the following places:

    • The conference agenda shows which sessions ran and who was speaking
    • A Storify gathers together tweets and photos to trace the conference’s main themes
    • Some photos (we hope to have more soon) are on Flickr and Instagram
    • The Twitter hashtag, #Alaveteli15 lets you see how things unfolded in real time
    • We’ve put together a Twitter list of Alaveteli deployments around the world: should be a great follow if you’re one of them
    • There’s now also an Alaveteli Slack channel for those who would like to continue the conversations begun at AlaveteliCon: ping @HenareDegan if you’d like access
    • Join an Alaveteli Google Group: There’s one for sharing experiences of running online FOI platforms, and another for developers using Alaveteli.

    We co-hosted Alavetelicon with Access Info, and the event was made possible with support from Open Society Foundations. Many thanks to all our speakers and delegates, whose insights and generous sharing of experiences ensured that everyone went home with plenty to work on!

    We hope to summarise several of the themes that emerged in a series of upcoming blog posts.

    Finally

    There were so many discussions, offers of help, ideas, and plans for the future that it’s hard to pick out just one benefit that came from the conference.

    But to my mind, the overarching mood is expressed in the following two tweets:

    It’s the idea of Alaveteli as not just a piece of software, but a genuine community, with the ability to support its members. The idea that, working together, we can identify and overcome difficulties.

    Putting faces to names, listening to stories—and yes, sharing a cerveza or two over the two days of AlaveteliCon—really helped to consolidate that idea.

    A lot of enthusiasm was born in Madrid: long may it last.

  3. Open Data Day resources

    Image by OpenSourceWay

    Note (June 2016): This post is now slightly out of date. FixMyTransport is no longer running, though all of the other APIs and tools listed are still available.

    There is also one significant addition which developers should find useful: EveryPolitician, which provides data on all current politicians around the world (and, in the future, we hope, all past ones too). See more here.


     

    Much of what we do here at mySociety relies on Open Data, so naturally we support Open Data Day. In case you haven’t come across this event before, here’s the low-down:

    Open Data Day is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.

    If you’re planning on being a part of Open Data Day, you may find some of mySociety’s feeds, tools and APIs useful. This post attempts to put them all in one place. (more…)

  4. OGP, “Out of the blue” sites and Oration

    OGP logoJen writes:

    Next week is a really exciting event for us here at mySociety International. You’ve probably heard about it; the Open Government Partnership annual meeting. This coincides with Global Transparency Week and a lot of international friends grouping in London for the first time in a while. It’s going to be good to catch up on interesting projects from other international groups. And don’t forget to come along to our drinks if you’re in town!

    A few more things about OGP before I let you know what we’ve been up to over the past month.

    In other news:

    • Over the past few months we’ve been working on a Pombola website with PMG from South Africa. We’re getting closer to completing this and can’t wait to show you the results.
    • We’re also hoping to start work really soon on an Alaveteli install for South Africa, so watch this space!
    • Other Alaveteli sites are nearing completion in Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. More on those as they appear… If you have installed Alaveteli, Pombola or FixMyStreet and not had contact with our international team please do drop us a line! We love to hear from you! Along this vein we recently came across Nuvasuparati in Romania and Aduanku in Malaysia. The best kind of surprise!
    • We are still offering some days of assistance to people that want help or advice setting up these sites, so do get in touch if this is you. Don’t be shy! We can discuss your ideas and your project and see where we can help.

    Where to find us:

    25th and 26th OctoberMozFest, London (Dave W)

    30th Oct – 1st NovemberOGP Annual meeting, London (Paul, Jen)

    30th OctobermySociety Drinks, London (Paul, Jen, Dave W)

    25th November to 30th November – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore (Dave W)

    27th to 30th NovemberWorld Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)

    If you want a more formal chat, send me an email before the date and I’ll arrange a meet up. Especially for Dave’s Malaysia and Singapore trips as these are arranged expressly with the idea that we will spend time with interested local groups!

  5. Save the Date: 30th October 2013

    The International team are taking over a Wednesday mySociety meet up!

    As you know, there is a large OGP event happening in London at the end of October. There are also a number of fringe events happening, some of which we’ll be attending, and one of which we’ll be running!

    Every Wednesday mySociety holds a meet up at the Mozilla Space in London. On the evening of October 30th we are hosting a slightly larger event and want to invite anyone who is in town for OGP as well as anyone who wants to attend from London or the UK.

    As always we’ll provide Pizza and Beer, as well as a range of other snacks and nibbles. We’d love it if anyone wanted to do a short lightening talk about something they’re working on. This would be really informal, no presentations, just a quick, snappy “Here’s my project, here’s why I think it’s important, here’s how you can get involved.” If that interests you, please email me at international@mysociety.org so I know you’ll be there and be talking.

    Most of all we want to meet more people from all over the world working on different projects around open data, civic engagement, social inclusion, transparency and accountability and other such topics.

    The space is limited to 70 people, so please do either register your attendance on Lanyrd or email me so I can add you to the list.

    We’ll be there from 6pm to 9pm, though the Mozilla space is open to anyone working on an “open project” – anything open source, open data etc – from 2:30pm. If you’re not going to be available until later in the evening, never fear! We’ll head to The Chandos, a pub just down the road, from 9pm onwards.

    This is one of many events that is a part of Global Transparency Week, please do check out what else is going on!

    Hope to see you there!

    Image credit Cocktail by Chamagraphy | Waterdrop World by Doug88888
  6. International Right to Know Day

    September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.

    Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.

    Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?

    Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.

    Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.

    There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.

    If you are inspired to create something to give citizens in your area access to information, then our Alaveteli platform is one way to do it. Please contact us for more information!

    Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!

     

    Images under creative commons licence | Fireworks by Joshua Sosrosaputo | Lanterns by Svtherland | Tuderechoasaber screenshot by TuDerechoASaber

  7. mySociety Weekly Hack Nights – join in the conversation

    Mountain Rescue Team by BeingFocal
    Thanks to everyone who came to the inaugural mySociety Hack Night – and thanks too to our hosts, the Open Data Institute for such a great space to work in.

    Topics ranged from community-building in post-conflict societies, to mountain rescue in Wales, via an extended front-end for WriteToThem which would put campaigns in context. It really showed what a lot of exciting ideas there are, just waiting for someone to launch into them.

    We’ll be running these nights every Wednesday: we’re currently booking for the following dates, 6:00 -9:00 pm.

    Places are restricted, so drop us a line on hello@mysociety.org if you’d like to be sure of getting in. All you need is a little coding experience and a laptop.

    We’d also like to start a conversation in the comments below, so that like-minded folk can think about hacking together. If you’re looking for people to help you with an idea, or if you see something you like the look of, leave a note below and try to synchronise which nights you’ll be attending.

    Photo by Being Focal (CC)

  8. ABRELATAM: the Latin American open data Unconference

    The open data movement has been gathering momentum over the past few years, as citizens demand more accountability from the businesses, institutions and governments that form a part of their lives.

    Last week, our international team was invited to take part in the first ever AbreLatAm (by the way: a clever word play on the Spanish word “abrelatas” which means can opener!). AbreLatAm is an unconference organised by our friends at DATA (Uruguay) and Ciudadano Inteligente (Chile).

    The idea was to bring representatives from different sectors of Latin American civil society together to share experiences, strategies, challenges and hopes for Open Data. People came from all over, including Europe and the USA, to participate, creating an amazingly inclusive atmosphere.

    Being an unconference, there was no set agenda. Instead, we started our time by writing provocative statements around open data, which people then had to defend or deny. Once the ice had been broken by passionate discussions about the merits of various ideas, we worked together to decide what we most wanted to learn from each other.

    For me, the most important part was seeing the projects other people work on to strengthen transparency, citizen participation, and civil liberties in their own countries. It’s a humbling experience to realise that some things we take for granted are the subject of intense campaigning in other countries.

    Each day we had a series of workshops around different topics. I facilitated one, trying to learn what people want from open source technology to make it more globally usable.

    It’s funny, open source has such great aspirations, then you speak to people and realise that your creation has been tweaked so much for the local context that it’s almost easier for someone to write their own version. This is something we’ve really taken on board, and we’re working really hard to avoid this with all of our software.

    I attended other workshops, learning about the challenges of building relationships with non-technical organisations – a key problem for most non-technical NGOs it seems. Most don’t have the money to pay for commercial web development.

    Hopefully, AbreLatAm will have allowed some of these people to forge useful tech partnerships so they can develop their ideas together.

    It was also extremely interesting to hear other people’s social, cultural and political experiences in relation to technology. One of the presentations that sticks most in my mind came from Laura Zommer of Chequeado.com. Her site verifies whether a politician’s statements are true, false, exaggerated or deceptive.

    Her presentation was a very funny video using those statements as a song sung around Buenos Aires. I particularly liked the fact that the public stopped to listen, and sometimes gave money to the artist. I would like to think that this kind of satirical response to politicians will help people analyse and question what their elected leaders tell them.

    Most of all though, the enthusiasm, energy and hope of all the participants left me with a feeling that we are slowly effecting change, in all of our countries, and if we work together we could do this throughout the whole world.

  9. Learning from the Shelter Databank

    If you are interested in attending a mySociety Data Briefing for Breakfast event, drop us a line and we’ll add you to our mailing list.

    28th June: Tristan Carlyon from Shelter

    Shelter's databank

    mySociety’s Data Briefings are all about how to present complex data online, simply. Shelter’s Databank tool is one of the better solutions we’ve seen to this exact problem, so we invited Tristan Carlyon, a key player in its creation, to tell us about it.

    The Shelter Databank pulls together government data on housing issues from a number of sources, and makes it accessible online.

    Although the underlying data is all freely available in various places, it wasn’t previously easy for the casual user to find or to use. Conversely, and crucially, you don’t need to be an expert to use Databank – it has a very simple interface and it outputs the data you need, in the format you need.

     “I created my ideal resource”.

    As with so much great software, the Databank was born when Tristan identified something that would make his own job easier. But it soon became clear that there would be a wider appreciative audience.

    A quick internal assessment helped Tristan calculate that the Shelter media team were spending a total of one day a week answering queries from the press. This fact alone justified the project – it’d make a large efficiency saving.

    The benefits wouldn’t just be internal:  it was also an opportunity to drive traffic to the Shelter website and increase brand awareness for the charity.

    At a previous Breakfast, the question had arisen of how you can get buy-in from higher management for this kind of project, when it may seem not to precisely align with your organisation’s main remit.

    As it happens, the Databank tool does fit pretty solidly within Shelter’s charitable mission – one of their aims is: “to educate the public concerning the nature, causes and effects of homelessness [..] and to conduct and procure research concerning the same and to make available the useful results thereafter to the public.”

     But there are other benefits too, even if your organisation doesn’t have a similar remit. Tristan confirmed that having an effective, useful tool builds the brand, cementing it more firmly in people’s minds.

    Plus, publishing this kind of data enables Shelter to engage with many of their target and actual stakeholders – press, elected representatives at all levels, academics, grassroots campaigners, and developers.

    Looks simple… works hard

    Tristan took us through the tool’s interface: it may appear basic, but a lot of thought has gone into every element. Some of the points he pulled out were:

    •  The input form is all on one page – and if you go back to amend your search, your previous input is saved.
    • The big red ‘get data’ button is unambiguous and unmissable – and happens to be Tristan’s favourite feature of the whole tool.
    • Search queries generate a URL that incorporates the search parameters, and can be easily shared or modified.
    • Glossary tags ensure that any technical terms can be understood by the general public just as well as industry insiders.
    • The tool is free of any spin. Despite its placement on a charity website, it does not exhort you to donate. Its only aim is to present the data without comment or editorial, which helps retain its integrity.

    OK, it’s built. Now you have to run the thing.

    The Databank was built within eight weeks, alongside other development projects. Like almost any such project – and as we at mySociety see with our own data-related sites – it couldn’t just be built and then left to do its work. As its underlying external data sources are refreshed, it must also be updated, and this is rarely a job that can be automated.

    In fact, Tristan currently does the updates manually, taking about a day’s work each quarter. He reckons that it’s still well worth it. The tool still offers massive efficiency savings, for him and for many others. Hundreds of subscribers are signed up to receive an alert whenever the data is refreshed.

    Shelter’s internal systems ensure that projects are always retrospectively assessed to see whether they met the objectives in the initial project plan.

    The Databank stands up well to scrutiny, being one of Shelter’s most consistently visited pages, and continuing to save time for the whole team. Reputation, perhaps, cannot be measured, but it is not a great leap to see that a useful tool like this can only enhance the charity’s image.

    We’ll be continuing our Data for Breakfast briefings, so if you’d like to hear about the next one, please drop us a line with your name and the organisation you work for.

  10. OGP Africa Regional Meeting

    The International team recently had an opportunity to meet with Mzalendo founders in Kenya. As you likely know, Mzalendo is the Kenyan Parliamentary Monitoring site similar to TheyWorkForYou which mySociety has helped re-build since June 2011 with support from the Omidyar Network.

    Being in Nairobi gave us the opportunity to meet with some of the organisations who provide information that helps power Mzalendo.com. These included the National Taxpayers Association , whose detailed research into the usage of Constituency Development Funds (CDF) has been invaluable in enabling us to create scorecards on the site. The scorecards are used to rate MPs based on a number of criterion including (pre-elections) how they had overseen the spending of CDF funds in their constituency, their accessibility to their constituents and contributions to debate in Parliament as presented in the Hansard. We also met with the UN/DESA representative behind the www.bungeni.org initiative that has been working with several African parliaments interested in using ICT to open them up to the public.

    We also attended the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Africa regional meeting in Mombasa. This two day conference brought CSOs and government officials from 13 African countries (plus a few from other parts of the world) together to discuss how open government works in Africa and to share experiences and recommendations. For mySociety the conference was a chance to meet CSOs and government officials from other countries in Africa to see how they are working towards openness in different ways.

    Paul, (pictured gesturing wildly) our Head of International projects,
    spoke briefly on the 2nd day on various topics such as making proceedings of parliaments and legislatures available in usable formats (a big theme for us across all the parliamentary monitoring sites we have helped create) and voting records. On the subject of voting, we managed to spark some debate, as the previous evening Kenyan MPs had voted to raise their salaries. This makes them the highest paid government officials in the world comparative to the average national salary.

    It was good to finally put names to faces for some people we’ve been working with remotely, like Selima (pictured above in the pink top) from marsoum41.org, the Alaveteli inspired platform based in Tunisia. Selima raised some really interesting points about how important, and difficult, it is to keep momentum going after post-revolution elections.

    We also met Gilbert Sendugwa from the Africa Freedom of Information Centre to talk about the potential of using Alaveteli platforms further across Africa. We should be discussing a pilot in one or two countries (yet to be decided!) which will begin in August 2013. That’s pretty exciting for us! About eight African countries have Freedom of Information (FOI) laws but their current implementation is weak by international standards.

    Finally I wanted to share a story from Robert Hunja that really brought home to me the importance of local knowledge and consultation in any project, be it government- or CSO-run. (It’s paraphrased as my scribing isn’t fast enough to keep up with talking)

    “Outside my father’s house runs a badly maintained road, but the local council didn’t have enough money to pave all of it, so they paved only sections. When I asked my father if he, or any other local residents had been consulted, he told me he was surprised he hadn’t been. He said if they had been consulted, and told money was limited, they wouldn’t have recommended paving only sections, but concentrating on a specific area of the road that had been the cause of many accidents.” Now the dangerous part of the road remains unrepaired, and the paved sections will cause problems as the disintegrate over time.

    Overall the conference allowed an exchange of ideas which will hopefully
    lead toward greater collaboration between governments and CSOs in Africa.

    Also, though we may not have seen lions or giraffes, some local monkeys did express an interest in joining the conference, if only during lunch time!