We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22!
Luke Bacon improved the design and accessibility of the search form.
Code quality came top of the list at AlaveteliCon 2015. This release includes contributions from James McKinney, Henare Degan, Caleb Tutty, Petter Reinholdtsen and Gorm Eriksen – all helping to clean up code, make Alaveteli work even better and make it easier to translate.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s Public Authority pages were suffering, so we took a dive in to the code around this area. Improving it had a huge impact on the page we were looking at and should have benefits across the application.
Maintenance & Security
When enabled, each request has a “Create a widget for this request” action available in the sidebar.
Any visitor can copy the iframe embed code to paste on their own website.
Waving Goodbye to the Past
You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed.
WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information website, through which you can send an FOI request to UK publicly-funded bodies. It is used in many different ways, by many different users.
Here’s a recent blog post by Doug Paulley which we think is worth highlighting. It uses a series of FOI requests across every council with social services responsibilities in England, Wales and Scotland, and every health and social care trust in Northern Ireland, to get to the truth of a simple question: whether or not a particular disability organisation, Leonard Cheshire, was honest when stating that they wanted to pay their carers a living wage.
We wanted to draw your attention to it because, as well as being a good read, it really highlights the innovative uses that can be made of the rights we enjoy under the FOI Act. It also shows that you don’t have to be a journalist to dig into a story like this. Perhaps it gives you ideas for something you’d like to investigate?
No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.
It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.
The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.
1. Make FOI concrete
Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.
Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’
You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.
2. Use SEO to your advantage
Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.
The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.
A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.
Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?
3. Make passive users into active users
The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?
One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.
Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.
Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.
If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.
4. Contextualise FOI
In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.
Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.
You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.
5. Create a community
Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.
Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.
A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.
6. Write about interesting requests
Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.
There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:
- Is the New Zealand Prime Minister actually a shape-shifting reptile?
- A series of requests about the zombie apocalypse
In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.
Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.
A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.
As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.
7. Conduct outreach
NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.
Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.
However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.
8. Paid ads
Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.
Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.
mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.
9. Friends in high places
Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.
Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.
For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.
10. Create your own buzz
The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous requests made in the previous year.
This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.
Now go and do it
So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!
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.
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.
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:
— Alaveteli (@alaveteli_foi) May 19, 2015
We can share the strategies that have worked in other places. When you have problems let the community know #Alaveteli15
— Alaveteli (@alaveteli_foi) May 19, 2015
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.
The second international Alaveteli conference
Venue: Impact Hub Next, C/ Alameda 22, Madrid 28014
There’s no other conference like it. If you’re involved with Freedom of Information technologies, you’ll want to be at AlaveteliCon, the only event with a specific focus on FOI in the internet age.
AlaveteliCon brings together civic society organisations and individuals from around the world. All have one thing in common: an interest in online Right To Know tools.
Interested? Keep reading and apply below!
WhatDoTheyKnow, our website for submitting FOI requests, has listed Network Rail for some time—even though it was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act—for reasons which Richard explained in a 2012 blog post.
As of March 24, however, Network Rail, which had previously been handling requests on a voluntary basis (although perhaps without quite as much adherence as we’d prefer) became fully FOI compliant. So, if there’s anything you’ve been bursting to ask them, now is the time.
This is a problem we have been warning about for some time. Islington Council were fined £70,000 for a similar incident in 2012. In light of this fresh incident we again urge all public authorities to take care when preparing data for release.
As with the Islington incident, the information was in parts of an Excel spreadsheet that were not immediately visible. It was automatically published on 14th November when Hackney Council sent it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the normal operation of the WhatDoTheyKnow website. All requests sent via the website make it clear that this will happen.
This particular breach involved a new kind of hidden information we hadn’t seen before – the released spreadsheet had previously been linked to another spreadsheet containing the private information, and the private information had been cached in the “Named Range” data in the released spreadsheet.
Although it was not straightforward to access the information directly using Excel, it was directly visible using other Windows programs such as Notepad. It had also been indexed by Google and some of it was displayed in their search previews.
The breach was first hit upon by one of the data subjects searching for their own name. When they contacted us on 25th November to ask about this, one of our volunteers, Richard, realised what had happened. He immediately hid the information from public view and notified the council.
We did not receive any substantive response from the council and therefore contacted them again on 3rd December. The council had investigated the original report but not understood the problem, and were in fact preparing to send a new copy of the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow site, which would have caused the breach to be repeated.
We reiterated what we had found and advised them to consult with IT experts within their organisation. The next day, 4th December, we sent them a further notification of what had happened, copying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As far as we are aware, this was the first time the ICO was informed of the breach.
From our point of view it is very disappointing that these incidents are still happening. Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow are a small fraction of all requests, so it is very likely that this kind of error happens many more times in private responses to requesters, without the public authority ever becoming aware.
Our earlier blog post has several tips for avoiding this problem. These tips include using CSV format to release spreadsheets, and checking that file sizes are consistent with the intended release. Either of these approaches would have averted this particular breach.
We would also urge the ICO to do as much as possible to educate authorities about this issue.
Today, we’re sharing research conducted on the impact of online Freedom of Information technology, including our own platform Alaveteli.
Researchers Savita Bailur and Tom Longley spent three months gathering first-person experiences, analysing data and assessing existing literature to answer this question:
“In what circumstances, if any, can the Freedom of Information tools mySociety builds be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?”
You can read their findings here:
1. Literature review [PDF]
The research was conducted in three parts: first, Tom and Savita reviewed existing literature on the impact of FOI, particularly FOI online, to form a baseline of existing knowledge in the area.
They went on to interview people who run, or ran, FOI sites in 27 different countries. They used the resulting transcripts for qualitative research, pulling out common themes to help them draw conclusions.
Finally, they were able to use these insights to create a list of critical success factors for those implementing FOI (especially Alaveteli) websites.
Why did we conduct this research, and why now?
Alaveteli has had a period of intense growth over the last three years – but it would be irresponsible of us to continue its promotion without assessing its true worth and impact.
This is best learned from the people who are at the coalface – the implementers (as Tom and Savita mention in the final research, a fuller study would have allowed them to include government workers and the sites’ end users, too, but that’s perhaps something for the future).
Alaveteli was created with the best intentions – to allow anyone, anywhere to put questions to the people and institutions in power – but it is important to assess whether those intentions have been realised.
We need to ensure that we have spent our efforts and our funders’ money responsibly, and that we are not wasting resources by making poor decisions.
mySociety’s Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, says, “This report confirms that the basic model does work, with the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.com operating as a well-used civic resource with thousands of users per month.
“Whilst the research shows that our partners implementing Alaveteli in their own countries are demonstrably up to the technical challenge of running these sites, it identifies the importance of governmental relations and receiving the right support in the early stages of implementation.
“We now hope to build on this research to better understand how to maximise the use and effectiveness of our platforms around the world in empowering citizens to engage with governments and decision-makers.”
The research was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.
As the literature review confirms, this type of study has never been done before – and with practitioners speaking to the researchers from within many different cultural backgrounds and political regimes (they interviewed implementers of 20 Alaveteli instances, from Australia to Uruguay), we are in a unique position to take a global view on the subject. For a fully-rounded picture, the study also spoke to implementers of seven sites running non-Alaveteli FOI software.
Of the experience, Savita and Tom say “We were so impressed by the dedication and determination of all the implementers in wanting to raise awareness of FOI and seeing Alaveteli as the platform to do this (even taking into account constructive criticism). The research experience was also great.”
The end result? Take a look for yourself – if you have the slightest interest in online democratic technologies or government-to-citizen information sharing on an international basis, it’s compelling reading.
What we’ll take away
There are learnings for us here, although it was great to hear such consistent praise for the Alaveteli platform and the community that has been created around it.
mySociety’s Director Tom Steinberg said, “We will certainly be looking carefully at the recommendations that have come from this report.
“This will include decisions about how to share best practice across the Alaveteli community, and not just in the technical areas.
“We’ll also be looking hard at the issue of how to ensure consistency in the analytics that are collected by different sites. And we very much hope to return to the subject in a couple of years’ time, when today’s new sites have become established, in order to conduct a follow-up piece of research.”
Few of our users realise this, but hardly a week goes by without mySociety receiving a legal threat relating to our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
These might refer to perceived libel in a request, or to material released in error, which an authority now wishes to retract. In the normal course of things, our team deal with legal issues quickly and diligently, occasionally consulting our lawyer – and generally speaking, they never need concern our users.
On Friday November 7th, at 2:17pm, we received a ‘letter before action’ from Enfield Council’s legal department, asking us to do two things: first, that we take down a certain request, and secondly that we provide them with information on the person who had raised it.
Well, that’s a quick turnaround even by the standards of our crack team of volunteers, even if it had been clear that Enfield had a good legal case. And, once we looked closely, we weren’t at all sure that they did.
The FOI request which had triggered this message seems like a fairly standard one: it asks for information about the closure of public libraries, and how much those closures would contribute towards the council’s stated target of making £65 million of savings over the next three years.
It is worth mentioning that the name this FOI request was filed under was clearly and demonstrably an impersonation – it claimed to be from the CEO of Enfield Council. In fact, we’d already been in correspondence with the council over this, and, as impersonation is against our site policies, it was a quick and easy decision for us to remove the name.
We will not disclose your email address to anyone unless we are obliged to by law, or you ask us to.
– and indeed, we have only done so once, when compelled to by a court order, in all the site’s long history (currently standing at over 200,000 FOI requests and over 71,000 users). The other point was slightly more tricky. We do our best to run WhatDoTheyKnow in the most responsible manner possible, for our users and for public authorities. We often have to tread a delicate line in order to do so.
Often there is a good reason that public bodies want information taken down, and the team routinely act rapidly to remove personal information, and other material that public bodies accidentally release, from our website. When we do take material down, wherever possible we do so transparently, leaving a note explaining what’s been removed and why.
But, where possible, we do not remove a request from the site, unless there is a very clear reason why its publication is breaking the law. Putting the mischievous name of the requester aside, this appeared to be a standard request about libraries and funding.
On occasions, like this, when requests to take material down appear unfounded or overzealous, we challenge them.
The notice before action stated that ‘the public availability of this information is or is likely to be highly damaging to Enfield Council’s ability to properly carry out those projects’. It also referred to ‘confidential and commercially sensitive’ material having been released, but we can find little within the request that is not publicly available elsewhere – for example, on the council’s own website one can find details of the Library Plan Development consultation document, containing very similar information – and nothing that seems obviously sensitive.
The council have recently been reported as saying:
“No decisions have been made yet on the type of library or the location of libraries. The final decision on the library service, location and different types of libraries will be made in February or March next year following the conclusion of this consultation.”
So – if a decision has not yet been made, the number of libraries to be closed cannot be a leak, as the information does not yet exist.
For those reasons, we responded to Enfield Council ask for clarification. We took down the request in question as a precaution, while we awaited this clarification. We gave them slightly longer than 43 minutes in which to do so — in fact, we contacted them on 10 November asking them to reply by 5pm on 14 November with clarification on their position.
For some reason it took them until 13 November to say they wouldn’t be able to reply substantively by then, so we asked them to respond instead by 5pm today — otherwise we would make the request public again.
No clarification has yet arrived. That being the case, we have made the request live.
It’s surprising how many people know about our websites, but haven’t heard about one of their useful features: email alerts.
In previous blog posts, we’ve described how you can set up alerts so that you receive an email every time:
- Your chosen topic is mentioned in Parliament;
- A specific Peer or MP speaks in Parliament;
- Someone makes a FixMyStreet report within your chosen area.
What do most people subscribe to? Mentions of their own town or city; speeches by their own MP; and FixMyStreet reports within their own area. It makes sense – of course we are interested in the issues which affect our own community.
Now here’s another way to be the first to know about what’s going on in your local area: you can subscribe to alerts from WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and receive an email every time someone makes a request for information to your local council (or any public authority of your choice).
Alerts about Freedom of Information requests
WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information site. It allows people to ask for information from public bodies such as councils, state schools, the NHS, et cetera – and it publishes both the requests and the responses.
If you ‘follow’ your own local authority, the site will automatically send you an email whenever anyone makes a request to it (condensed into a daily digest).
Because people use the Freedom of Information act to find out about things that really matter to them, these alerts can be a great way of keeping up with local concerns. If you’re a journalist, a councillor, a local activist or just an interested member of your own community, they can be both fascinating and invaluable.
If you’d like to ‘follow’ requests made to your own local council, here’s how:
1. Go to WhatDoTheyKnow.com
The homepage is at www.WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
2. Search for the authority you want to follow
As you can see from the homepage screenshot above, WhatDoTheyKnow currently covers more than 15,500 authorities – everything from local councils to Government departments, state schools and more. The easiest way to find the authority you need is to use the search box on the right of the page:
In this case, there is only one result for my search term, ‘Brighton Council’.
Below this result, I can also see previous FOI requests made to my council. Here’s where I get a taste of why this alert subscription might be so useful and interesting to me, as a local resident. There are requests about bus subsidies, allotment waiting lists, council salaries, school catchment areas… and lots more.
If you prefer, you can refine your search results by selecting “requests”, “users”, or “authorities” below the search box – in this exercise, we are looking for your local council, so you should click “authorities”.
On the right hand side of the page, you will see the title: “Follow this authority”, then the number of people who are already doing so, and a green ‘Follow’ button.
This button allows you to sign up for email alerts.
Below it, as you can see, there is also an option to access an RSS feed – this is useful if you use a “Reader” or “News Aggregator” to keep up with blogs and other feeds from a variety of sources.
But today, we’re signing up for an email alert, so click the green button.
4. Sign in or sign up
At this point, we ask you to sign up or sign in.
If you already have a WhatDoTheyKnow account, all you need to do is log in, and you’re done – your alert has been set up.
If you don’t have an account, it’s as simple as filling in your email address, name, and picking a password.
The site will then send you a confirmation email with a link in it – clicking on this helps to confirm that you are a real person, and that you have entered a genuine email address – which you’ll need, if you are going to receive alerts!
You are now registered, and you’ll receive an email once on every day that anyone makes a request to your local council, or an existing request is updated (eg the council responds, or someone leaves an annotation).
Every email alert has a link at its foot, which you can follow to ‘manage’ your alerts: if you want to stop receiving one or more of them, just click ‘unsubscribe’.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to your own council. If you have a particular interest in any authority – perhaps your children’s school, a government department, or local public bodies- you can sign up to alerts in exactly the same way.
No matter how many alerts you subscribe to, they all arrive in just one email, so they won’t clog up your inbox.
In a forthcoming blog post, we’ll also be looking at how to subscribe to topics or keywords, and how to use operators to get a slightly more refined alert.