Thanks to everyone who attended the launch of our Research department’s policy paper this week.
Open Democracy’s Peter Geoghegan and Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock joined us at the event for a fast paced discussion of the problems with FOI we’re all seeing in the current climate, and to what extent the proposals in our paper would remedy them.
At times, the chat box was so lively and knowledgeable that it felt like we’d convened the entire UK FOI community, but we know that isn’t quite true, so here’s the video for those that couldn’t make it:
We’ve also answered the most relevant of the questions that were posed by our attendees, and you can see the responses here. Thanks, too, to Open Democracy for reviewing the paper in this thoughtful piece.
Alex Parsons, who led on the research, has a handful of side explorations that didn’t end up in the final paper:
- Network Rail: how accounting definitions of control can expand FOI/EIR coverage
- FOI and appeals to the regulator
- What are environmental information requests and how do they differ in Scotland?
And finally, if all this talk of FOI has awakened your desire to do more around the topic, well, we have just the job opportunity for you.
Throughout National Democracy Week, we’ve been focusing on women in politics: how they’re represented; how they’re affected; and how data can help us understand more about these two topics.
To wrap things up, we want to highlight some of the organisations helping women in tech, and especially in our own field of Civic Tech.
Coding, researching, designing and promoting web tools that help people to understand and engage with democracy is mySociety’s own way of participating in politics. We’d like to encourage more women to join us in this very rewarding field.
Working in Civic Tech
Civic Tech is a fairly new field, and a broad one. And while the coding side is often — rightly — highlighted as an area where there’s a minority of women, it’s also worth mentioning that there are all kinds of other career routes available (to everyone!).
We can see some of these in mySociety: in fact, browsing our Team page is one good way of seeing the diverse roles within which we’re all chipping away at the organisation’s goals.
These include research, design, events, communications, sysadmin, data analysis, sales and delivery — and of course in the wider field there are people working in hands-on activism and philanthropy.
Organisations supporting women in Civic Tech
mySociety’s gender balance fluctuates, as you’d expect, when people leave or join; but women currently make up about a third of the workforce. We’d always love to employ more women, and when we recruit it’s something we actively think about; in fact we wrote a whole longform blog post about it a while back.
But in order for that to happen, women need to know about the routes open to them, and the benefits of working in Civic Tech. For starters, here’s a selection of the organisations actively working to get more women into this field and to support them once they’re here.
- Open Heroines brings together the voices of women working in open government, open data and Civic Tech.
- Code First: Girls (UK) works with companies and with men and women directly, to help increase the number of women in tech.
- 23 Code Street (London) offers coding courses to women; for every paying student, they also teach digital skills to a woman in the slums of India.
- Women Hack For Non-Profits (London) a community of women building open source projects for non-profit organisations and charities. Learn to code and work on real life projects.
- Codebar.io (UK and worldwide) teaches coding in a supportive, collaborative environment for women, LGBTQ, and underrepresented ethnic groups.
- blackgirl.tech (UK) ‘code and chill’ workshops for black women and non binary people.
- Rails Girls (worldwide) Ruby on Rails workshops for women.
- Lesbians Who Tech (US and worldwide) a community of queer women in or around tech (and the people who love them).
- Geek Girl Meetup UK (London and worldwide) a network, for and by, women and girls interested in all things tech, design, and startup.
- Mums in Tech (UK) coding school for mums, with baby friendly courses, events and classes.
- DevelopHer (UK) non-profit community dedicated to elevating women in tech.
- Pyladies (worldwide) mentorship group for women in the python community.
- TLA Women in Tech (London) movement for gender equality in the global tech industry.
- Ada’s List (email-based community) a group for women who are committed to changing the tech industry.
- AuthorAID (worldwide) Supporting women researchers with practical advice and also provides grants to support researchers in attending a conference on the topic of gender or hosting a gender workshop in their country.
- Uscreates (UK) supporting gender equality in design leadership.
- Women who design (Twitter-based) a directory of women in the design industry.
- Double or nothing (UK) campaign for gender equality in design.
- Hidden women of design (Facebook page) a series of curated talks by Female Graphic Designers sharing insight into their creative practice.
- Women in data (UK) Annual conference for data professionals.
Words from mySociety’s staff
Louise, Head of Development: I enjoy working for an organisation that has a positive effect on the state of the world and helps a wide range of people participate in civic life. As far as tech goes, I think programming is an amazing career choice for women for a lot of reasons — but three really obvious ones are money (tech jobs tend to pay above the average), power (you can build things that change the world) and flexibility (tech jobs tend to be inherently flexible and, as mySociety demonstrates, you can work from home).
Bec, Head of Research: What I enjoy about working in Civic Tech is discovering how relatively small tools can change behaviours and change institutions. Hopefully for the better!
Abi, HR: My Top Tips for Job Applicants now include reading this great piece, Confidence and the Gender Gap: 14 tips for Women in Tech. Think you’re slightly under-qualified? APPLY ANYWAY. We have seen worse, believe me.
Myf, Communications Manager: I’ve found Civic Tech to be a really welcoming field that judges you on the quality of your work, not your gender or any other factor that’s irrelevant to the task in hand.
Well, what an amazing few days in Taipei!
— Julia Kloiber (@j_kloiber) September 11, 2017
Last Saturday (August 19th) at Newspeak House in London, mySociety and Wikimedia UK held the “Wikifying Westminster” workshop, a day-long event to encourage people to get involved with Wikidata, but also to give a taste of what people can build with the data that is already there.
The vision: one day, complex investigations which currently take researchers a lot of time, such as “how many MPs are descended from people who were also MPs” or “how many people named X were MPs in year Y”, will be answerable with data from Wikidata using a single SPARQL query…
…but we’re not quite there yet. Currently, some data is scattered all over separate databases (which sometimes get shut down or disappear); some is just plain missing; and most frustrating of all, some is in place but there’s no apparent way to get it out of the database.
In order to make this vision a reality, we need to experiment with the data, find ways to check how complete it is, and explore what questions we can currently answer with it. Events like Wikifying Westminster are the perfect opportunity to do just that.
After a brief introduction to Wikidata and the EveryPolitician project, we split into two groups: one focused on learning how to use Wikidata, while the other focused on working on mini-projects.
Here’s a taste of what happened…
The learning track began by introducing new users to the basic Wikidata editing principles (or “getting data into Wikidata”). Participants were able to put their new skills into action immediately, by adding missing data on British MPs, who were mostly lacking dates and places of birth.
By the end of the first session, good progress had been made, particularly on obtaining dates of birth for current British parliamentarians. For some reason, though, it proved much harder to find these for women than for men: we can only speculate as to why that might be (do some still adhere to the idea that a woman shouldn’t reveal her age?!).
We were also given an introduction to SPARQL, a language used to query information on databases (or “getting data out of Wikidata”). Lucas Werkmeister introduced the Wikidata query service and explained a few tricks to help with using it. Participants were later able to put this to the test by running progressively difficult test queries such as “All current UK MPs” or “Who is the youngest current MP?”
Also, Navino Evans showed us the potential of reusing data, talking about Histropedia, which he co-created with Sean McBirnie. Histropedia is an awesome tool that lets you visualise thousands of topics on interactive timelines: you can browse through existing ones or create a new one from scratch.
This group both worked on improving data and looked at how well we could answer some simple “stepping stone” queries (i.e. small questions to which we already knew some of the answers) as a heuristic of how good the data in Wikidata already is. You can see and contribute questions to the list of test queries here.
Some more details:
Improving data. The focus here was on the Northern Ireland Assembly, for which Wikidata now has full membership history back to the foundation of the Assembly, and on adding academic degrees of cabinet ministers. Starting from an excellent spreadsheet of the undergraduate universities and subjects of UK politicians and ministers (going back to John Major’s cabinets), we tried to upload that data on the relevant items, adding the qualifier “academic major” (P812) to the property “educated at” (P69). In this case, the key problem we found was that we weren’t sure how to model when people did joint subjects, like “Maths and Politics”, convincing us to concentrate on the more obvious subjects first.
Answering some unusual and/or intriguing questions. Inspired by a prior finding that there are more FTSE 100 CEOs named John than there are female ones, and that John is historically the most common name of UK parliamentarians, we thought we’d find out when exactly the John-to-female balance was toppled amongst the UK’s MPs (hint: not until 1992).
Going back further in history, we queried the first time each given name was recorded in Parliament, this was inspired by a recent news article about an MP who claimed he was the first “Darren” in the Commons.
Some ideas were also born that we weren’t able to see through, for various reasons. For example, could we discover which, if any, MPs are descended from people listed in the UCL’s ‘Legacy of British Slave-owners’ database? An interesting question, but at the moment, the answer is ‘no’, partly because child-parent relationships are currently inconsistently modelled in Wikidata, and partly because of the nature of Wikidata and ancestry: if there is someone who doesn’t exist in Wikidata (e.g. Grandad Bob, the painter) in the family chain, Wikidata can’t bridge the gap between a present day MP and the slave owner who might be their ancestor.
This is just the beginning
Work, of course, is still ongoing: all pre-1997 UK data is still to be inserted or improved on Wikidata, and so much more is missing – family connections, academic degrees, links to other databases, and all sorts of “unusual stuff” that can be used for interesting queries.
This data is crucial if we want to be able to answer the really big questions which Wikidata should one day be capable of helping us explore, about what politicians do.
We can do that together!
We hope that events like this give people an easy way in to Wikidata and also show them what’s already possible to achieve with the data. Over the coming months, we are hoping to support more events of this type around the world. If you are interested in getting involved, here’s how:
- Want to improve your country’s data? Events like this can be a great way to help kickstart activities and find other people who share your goals. We are happy to help out and support people in other countries to do so.
- Are you already organising or planning to organise a similar workshop around Wikidata? Make sure it is listed on the Wikidata Event page!
- Do you want to attend future workshops? Follow us on Twitter to stay updated about events that we are running, and ones that other people are too!
Feature image credits: Mark Longair
Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?
In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.
Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.
As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.
This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.
But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.
From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:
- This Google form (in Spanish – but you can fill it in in English if you wish), or
- The hashtag #derechoasaber16 on Twitter, or
- Email email@example.com (Council of Transparency and Good Governance) or firstname.lastname@example.org (Access info Europe and Civio Foundation).
Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.