1. Challenging refusals: upholding the right to information

    We’re very pleased to say that we’ve been awarded funding by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to extend the Freedom of Information services we offer through WhatDoTheyKnow and WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    This work will support users in taking the next steps, if appropriate, when their requests for information are denied.

    A bit of background

    In the last few years, there has been a significant and sustained decline in FOI requests being granted by the UK government.

    According to the Institute for Government, the proportion of refused FOI requests reached a record level in the third quarter of 2019, with departments refusing to comply in full with more than half of all FOI requests that they received. This compares to around 40% in 2010 and around 30% in 2005.

    And yet, our research found that, when challenged, a large proportion of refusals were overturned, suggesting that the fault did not lie with the type of request being made. 22% of internal reviews resulted in the full or partial release of information, and a further 22% of appeals to the ICO led to all or some of the information being released.

    For local authorities, up to half of internal reviews – and just over half of all ICO appeals – led to the release of all or some of the information requested. In Scotland, with its own FOI regime, 64% of appeals to the Information Commissioner resulted in the full or partial release of information.

    And so, while acknowledging that some refusals are certainly legitimate, there is a clear case for challenging such responses. But to do so is daunting, especially for novice requesters who can understandably be discouraged by an official response citing exemptions in legalese.

    Our plan

    This new funding will allow us to approach the issue from four different, but interlinked directions, each intended to inform and support users in challenging government refusals of FOI requests.

    • When a WhatDoTheyKnow user confirms that they’ve received a refusal, we’ll be integrating context-sensitive advice. This will inform the user of their right to appeal, give clear guidance on how to assess whether the authority has complied with the law, and also advise on other channels, beside FOI, by which information may be obtained.
    • We’ll automatically identify which exemption has been cited in the refusal, giving us the ability to help users better understand why their request has been turned down.
    • Based on this finding, we’ll offer context-specific advice for the exemption identified. For example, if the request has been turned down because of cost, we’ll show how to reframe it to fall below the ‘appropriate limit’.
    • Finally, once the user has been fully informed, we’ll offer the support they need to escalate the request to an appeal.

    Ultimately we hope that this work will help reset the balance on the public’s right to access information, better enabling citizens, journalists and civil society to effectively scrutinise and hold authorities to account.

    As always, we’ll also be thinking hard about how to make all of this apply more universally, across the various legislatures that apply in jurisdictions where people are running sites on the Alaveteli platform.

    If this interests you, watch this space. We’ll be sure to update when we’ve made some progress on the project.

    Image: Tim Mossholder

  2. Improving access to information in Europe: everyone’s a lottery winner

    We’re delighted to announce that we’ve received funding from the Swedish Postcode Foundation that will help us extend our work on Freedom of Information in Europe.

    The Foundation uses proceeds from the country’s lottery sales to help fund projects that support democracy and freedom of speech, as one of three areas where they believe they can help bring about long term positive change to the world.

    The connection is particularly apt, as it was in Sweden that the world’s first FOI law was passed in 1766. From that beginning grew a worldwide good: since then, access to information has been recognised as a fundamental right by the European Court of Human Rights, and has been adopted in countries around the globe.

    Matched up

    In May 2019 we received funding from Adessium Foundation for a three-year project to increase access to online FOI tools across Europe. The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.

    Now this new match funding will allow us to dig further and build better within the main elements of the project, which are:

    • To help partners to launch new FOI sites in the Netherlands, France (already completed) and another jurisdiction (coming soon).
    • To upgrade existing sites to include the Alaveteli Pro functionality: AskTheEU already has this and five others will gain it shortly. By 2022 there’ll be 13 Alaveteli sites in Europe, 10 of which will have Pro.
    • To improve the Alaveteli Pro software with new features that’ll make it a more powerful tool for investigations and campaigns (so far we’ve worked on exporting data from batch requests and enabling users to add links to news stories).
    • To support journalist and campaigning organisations to use Alaveteli tools as part of their investigations (such as Privacy International’s use of FOI in their investigation into surveillance technologies used by police in the UK).
    • To monitor government compliance with FOI, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Get involved

    Now we can spread the goodness even further, so we’re planning to run some online training/learning activities around using Alaveteli tools as part of an investigation or campaign. If your work would benefit from this, and you live in an EU country with an Alaveteli Pro site, do get in touch.

    We’re also keen to partner with membership-based news or campaign organisations to run more pilot projects using our new Projects feature. If you have a project that could benefit from contributors helping to extract and analyse data from FOI responses, let us know.

    And finally: we’ll soon be starting to gather data about FOI compliance in different EU countries. If this is something that could benefit your work, register your interest and we’ll keep you posted.

    Image: Jonathan Brinkhorst 

  3. Wishing Mzalendo well

    Back in February 2012, we announced the launch of a new site for Mzalendo, a parliamentary monitoring website for Kenya.

    This year, we handed the hosting, development and maintenance of the site over to the Mzalendo team on the ground. We’re delighted that they are in the position to no longer require our help.

    Supported by the Indigo Foundation, this was one of mySociety’s first formal partnerships in which we developed a website for an existing organisation — in this case, building on the work of two activists Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga, who had been filling a gap in Kenya’s public provision of parliamentary information by blogging and publishing MPs’ data since 2005.

    If it wasn’t for their work, Kenya would be a whole lot less informed about its own parliament: the official government website, for example, only had information about 50% of the nation’s MPs at the time, and the country’s Hansard could only be accessed by request to the Government’s Printer’s Office.

    We were able to draw upon our experience with our UK parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou to avoid the common pitfalls in building such projects, and provide useful features such as an online searchable Hansard, responsive design, MP ‘scorecards’ and an easily-updated database for representatives’ details.

    During the years of our partnership, Mzalendo kept the site maintained with data and news, while we worked on the development of new features they requested, fixing any bugs that arose, for example when the Kenyan parliament changed their data outputs, and hosting.

    But there are plenty of willing and able developers in Kenya, and it became increasingly obvious that funding could be more effectively — and efficiently — routed directly to them rather than to us in the UK.

    Like most mySociety code, the Pombola codebase on which Mzalendo was built is open source, so anyone is free to inspect, reuse or just take inspiration from it. The handover should, therefore, be reasonably painless for the new developers.

    We wish Mzalendo all the best in their ongoing efforts to keep Kenya informed and politically engaged.

    Image by Valentina Storti: a tawny eagle flying over Laikipia District, central Kenya (CC by/2.0)

  4. TheyWorkForYou — helping you hold the new parliament to account

    When you woke up this morning to check the election results, you may have visited TheyWorkForYou.

    And you’d have found it bang up to date, thanks to the new MP data that was added through the night, as the election results came in. More than a fifth of you have a new MP, and whether you voted for them or not we know you’ll want to keep them accountable.

    Donate to help us keep this service going.

    We’ve just now added one final MP — for St Ives, since weather conditions prevented ballot boxes coming over from the Isles of Scilly earlier.

    We’ll be helping you hold all MPs, new and returning, to account over the next few years, as we publish their debates and votes, expenses, interests and contact details.

    We make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand what’s going on in Parliament, and how you can play a part in your own democracy.

    Right now, you can get a headstart:

    If you’re a developer, researcher or just a good old data junkie, you might additionally like to:

    Now we need you to help us

    We’re determined to carry on providing these services, but we still need your help to do so.

    There are seven days left to run on our crowdfunder. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors, we’ve already raised almost £10,000, for which we are enormously grateful.

    But we still need to raise another £15,000 so that we can continue providing these services, as well as adding new features that will improve the site and make Parliament easier for everyone to follow.

    Please donate now.

    TheyWorkForYou crowdfunder

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  5. Can you help TheyWorkForYou survive… and thrive?

    TheyWorkForYou is currently operating without dedicated funding, and that’s a problem. In order to keep it running for the next twelve months, we’re going to need your help.

    That’s why we’ve set up mySociety’s first ever crowdfunder. If you enjoy — or perhaps even rely on — TheyWorkForYou’s services, then please be a hero and pledge to help ensure the site can continue to provide them.

    Donate now

    Why donate?

    TheyWorkForYou has a simple aim: to make it easier for everyone to understand what happens in Parliament – from a searchable, shareable record of exactly what was said in debates, to how your MP voted. We think that it’s important in a democracy that you should be able to see who your MP is, check what they are saying and how they are voting on your behalf.

    Now more than ever, the UK needs clarity over what’s said and done in Parliament. As political activity becomes more complex, and has more effect on all of our lives, TheyWorkForYou’s remit becomes all the more critical.

    However, just keeping the site going on a daily basis takes a substantial amount of staff time and expertise, not to mention the costs involved in hosting a heavily-visited website. Taking all that into consideration, it takes a good sum of money just to keep standing still. We’ve worked hard to find the support we need through our usual funding channels, but so far without success.

    Then, if we want to do more than just keep TheyWorkForYou in its current state — and we’ve got a long list of much-needed features we’d love to add, many of them suggested by you, our users — we need to reach the full target of £25,000.

    How you can help

    So if you’re in a position to do so, please put on your democracy superhero cape and donate to help keep TheyWorkForYou running.

    And if you’re not, then you can still help by sharing the link to the crowdfunder far and wide. We really appreciate it.

    Donate now

  6. Ensuring WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next half a million requests

    If you appreciate our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, then you’d probably like to know that it’ll be around for the foreseeable future.

    That will only be a certainty if we can secure new volunteers across a broad range of areas; or new sources of funding for the site — or ideally, both! WhatDoTheyKnow is a free service, run on a charitable basis by a currently very thinly-stretched team of volunteers.

    We’ve identified four areas in which we need help:

    • Funding
    • Legal support
    • Admin support
    • Additional volunteers

    In this post we’ll be looking at the first of those; and in our next post we’ll talk more about various volunteer roles and ways of helping the site to operate. If you think you might be able to assist in any of these categories, please do read on.

    Some background

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a Freedom of Information service used by millions of people each year, from journalists and campaigners to ordinary people trying to navigate bureaucracy.

    We recently celebrated the 500,000th request made via WhatDoTheyKnow, and also the site’s tenth anniversary. Each month, it’s visited by over half a million people and over 2,500 requests are made via the site. It’s a success story — an example of civic tech that runs at scale, has lasted, and has had an impact to match.

    One of the ways that mySociety has always tried to make change in the world is by building things on the web that show how the world could be better. In the case of WhatDoTheyKnow, we asked ‘What would it be like if everyone felt able to ask questions of those with power, and get answers?’.

    Our position as a small digital charity allows us to be bold in the things we build, to act as critical friends to institutions of power, and to design for the citizen. In practical terms, it also allows us to ask forgiveness, not permission — without that freedom, many of our sites and ideas would never have seen the light of day. That we have had success with WhatDoTheyKnow is wonderful, but leads us to ask a new question: how can we, again as a small digital charity, ensure its future?

    It’s always been a necessary engineering principle for us as software developers, trying to build sites that have impact, to require as little ongoing intervention as possible. However, technology isn’t and shouldn’t be everything — a site that runs on the scale of WhatDoTheyKnow can’t run without different kinds of support. In running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve learned that digital institutions, like other institutions, are shaped by people. The people who originally designed them, for certain, but also those who pick up the torch, who continue to make the day-to-day decisions that keep the institution relevant, humane, responsive and responsible. It’s this support that distinguishes brilliant technical ideas that flame out from those that grow and become so embedded in our culture that they start to fundamentally change the way the world works.

    A vital part of that support for WhatDoTheyKnow comes from a handful of volunteers who run the service day to day. These volunteers handle everything from simple user support to advising on complex points of law and policy.

    Now the success of the site means that they need help on the front line. We’re always on the lookout for new volunteers — but there are also other things we need to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next ten years and another half a million requests.

    We need funding for admin

    It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we recruit a part-time assistant, responding to our users’ queries via email. This person would help our amazing team of volunteers support people in all walks of life as they go through the process of requesting information from public authorities.

    They’d help to deal with the diverse day to day user enquiries, make sure we meet important deadlines in handling time-sensitive issues like GDPR-based requests, and share feedback to improve our user and volunteer experience over time. The cost of a paid part-time support role would be at least £15k per year.

    We don’t currently have any funding for this increasingly essential role, nor indeed any direct funding for WhatDoTheyKnow itself.

    We need funding for development

    Although WhatDoTheyKnow hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years, there are always ways in which we could improve it — a recent example is our work to start developing features for journalists and other professional users.

    The site does also require a certain amount of ongoing development work in order to keep it running at the scale it does. That includes making sure it gets the latest security updates, and dealing with new problems that arise as it grows, such as the fact that the more popular it becomes, the more rewarding a target it becomes for spammers.

    Work to maintain Alaveteli, the code that runs WhatDoTheyKnow, also supports the community of Freedom of Information campaigners, journalists and citizens around the world that use Alaveteli-based services to exercise their right to know in 26 countries.

    We don’t currently have any financial support for developers to support and maintain WhatDoTheyKnow and it’s important we find at least project funding of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, if not general unrestricted financial support from new funders.

    Funding to date

    We should acknowledge the funding which has allowed us to run thus far, and for which we are of course very grateful. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust originally got WhatDoTheyKnow off the ground; Google’s Digital News Initiative supported the development of Alaveteli Professional, and unrestricted support from a number of funders ensured that mySociety has been able to continue paying their developers to work on the project. It’s perhaps worth noting that this support has, to date, always sustained development rather than administration.

    We do have a revenue stream through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our FOI service for professionals such as journalists, but as yet this is very modest. As the service develops, we hope that this may one day become part of the framework that helps sustain WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’re some way from that at this point in time.

    Sourcing funding

    Can you help identify a fund or donor who might be willing to cover the costs we’ve identified above for the next year or two? Please get in touch.

    Or perhaps we can be more imaginative. One model we’ve seen used to good effect by other sites run on our FOI platform Alaveteli has inspired us to conceive of a similar (but not identical) set-up for WhatDoTheyKnow. This would involve sponsorship from one or more reputable media organisations who could make use of WhatDoTheyKnow for their own journalistic investigations, while also gaining the benefit of recognition across the site.

    Of course, that’s just one idea — there must be many other possible models for supporting the site and we’d love to hear any ideas you have in the comments below.

    Now you might like to read our second post, in which we’ll be talking about ways you might be able to help with time, rather than money.


    You can help out, with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  7. A timely new grant from the Hewlett Foundation

    mySociety is funded in a variety of ways: our work is supported by the commercial services that we offer to councils and other organisations; by donations from individuals; and currently, in largest part, by grants from an array of philanthropic funders.

    We were delighted to receive news recently that the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation will continue to support us — and not only to support our research activities, as they have generously done for the last two years, but with a new grant of $1.2m over three-years that will help fund our core operational costs.

    This is enormously welcome, and a timely acknowledgement of our efforts to build the evidence base around civic tech, not least as we continue to keep all the various mySociety plates spinning across our work in our three practice areas: Democracy, Freedom of Information and Better Cities.

    On the eve of our third The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Florence, it’s great to know that this generous sum will ensure that we can continue to support our research team, as we explore the role that such activities have in the creation of flourishing communities and how best we can extend the benefits of these approaches to more disadvantaged individuals and marginalised groups.

    But we are well aware that we’ll also need to seek additional funding from elsewhere. Significantly, over the past five years our grant from the Omidyar Network has been a game-changer for mySociety: it has allowed us to expand our team, work with more partners around the world to help them run citizen-empowering sites, and launch our own new projects such as Every Politician and Alaveteli Pro.

    Our Omidyar grant comes to an end early next year, and so despite the support of funders such as Hewlett it is essential that find new and additional sources of funding in order to continue our work at scale.

    As we seek to find a sustainable business model for Civic Tech we will keep developing appropriate commercial models within each of our practice areas – the recent changes to our Better Cities team have meant that we’re in a good position to increase the proportion of our income that comes from our commercial services.

    However even if we are successful in securing new commercial revenues, we’ll still face a funding gap, compounded by the delicate tightrope we’re forced to walk as we balance our commercial and charitable responsibilities.

    And so, the next few months will be a period of exploration, for me and the team, as we investigate the best way to meet our objectives to hold power to account, more important than ever in such volatile and unpredictable times.

    If you represent a funding organisation active in this space and are looking to better understand the role that digital has to play in supporting and enriching the lives of those in disadvantaged communities, do expect to hear from us – or rather than wait, please get in touch for a chat.

    Image: Bart Busschots (cc)

  8. Tweet if you’d like to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya

    We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.

    So with Article 19 East Africa, we’ve applied to innovateAFRICA, which is seeking disruptive digital ideas to improve the way that news is collected and disseminated.

    As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.

    But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.

    How you can help

    Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.

    This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.

    Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.

    Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.

    Thank you.

     

    Image: Innovate Africa

     

  9. Heads up, nonprofits: Google Ad Grants is allowing multiple domains again

    This is a public service announcement for any organisations that have been making use of Google Ad Grants to run Adwords for free.

    We’re the grateful recipient of a Google Ad Grant ourselves, which is why you might see our ads appearing on some Google searches. We find that Google Ads are a great channel to bring our sites to the attention of people who might not already know about them, but who are searching for phrases like “Who is my MP?”, “How did my MP vote?”, or “How can I report a pothole?”. Every year they bring us thousands of new visitors.

    The single-domain rule

    A couple of years ago, the rules around Google Ad Grants changed, stipulating that recipients must only link to a single domain, and that that should be the domain of the grantee organisation. For us, with our multiple sites, that meant making some changes. Our ads currently point at a series of landing pages here on the mySociety.org site, each of which acts as a springboard to one of our other domains.

    This is permitted behaviour and in many cases it resulted in a pretty good user experience, allowing us to focus on exactly what the user was searching for, and deliver them there.

    For example, if someone searches for ‘report a pothole’ and clicks on our ad, they’ll land on this page.

    Inputting their postcode takes them directly to the second page of FixMyStreet, with no extra clicks than if they had gone through the homepage, plus there’s the opportunity for us to talk a bit about what the site does and why it exists at all.

    Linking to additional domains

    However, we recently discovered that Google Ad Grants’ rules have been relaxed a little (at least, they have here in the UK. As terms and conditions vary from territory to territory, you should check your own region’s Google Ad Grants terms and conditions). Here’s what they look like in the UK:

    In certain cases, you may be able to promote multiple domains in a Google Ad Grants account after your original Grants application has been approved.

    To request adding new domains to your account, fill out the Additional Website Domain Request form. Your request should be reviewed within 5 business days.

    Reasons you can request an exception

    You can request an exception to the website policy if you have other websites that:

    • Promote ongoing projects with similar content owned by your organization
    • Contain the same information as your main domain but for a different language
    • Replace your original website because you’ve changed your domain since applying for Ad Grants

    We applied and within just a couple of hours, we were authorised to link directly to our own websites.

    This is brilliant for us because it means we can really maximise the value we get from the grant. We can now point searchers directly to deep content such as MPs’ voting records on TheyWorkForYou, and specific public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. We’ll probably also keep our landing pages, at least for the time being, because we think they are a good user path for the relevant search terms.

    So, if this is a ruling that was causing you headaches, it is worth revisiting the terms and conditions and seeing whether you are now eligible to do the same. Let us know how you get on!

     

    Image: Martin Deutsch (cc)

  10. A ‘yay for Poplus’ moment: one bid, six countries

    Image by Dave WhitelandThe Knight Foundation’s News Challenge offers funding to innovative projects. We wonder whether they’ve ever had a bid whose collaborators span six different countries before.

    Well, now they have: the plan to extend YourNextMP to work in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Scotland, and Minnesota is a great example of the Poplus federation in action.

    You can read more about the plans on the bid page—and please click the little pink heart to give us ‘applause’!

     

    The bid

    In short, we want to build on the success that the YourNextMP crowdsourcing platform has had here in the UK.

    Right now, YourNextMP offers open data on every candidate for the UK general election. That data is being used by major media companies and internet giants, and underlies several innovative online tools. On top of that, it’s getting thousands of visits every day from people who simply want more information about who’s standing in their area.

    With some modification, other countries could use the same tech in advance of their own elections, giving their citizens the same opportunities to become more informed about those standing, and to develop still more useful online tools.

    This is a ‘Yay for Poplus’ moment

    Because Poplus is an international federation of organisations with similar needs, we can come together to forge plans that will benefit all of us, and then work together to make them a reality.

    Our plans wouldn’t just benefit those six countries, either. Like every bit of Poplus tech, it’d be available as open source software for anyone to use, anywhere in the world. And that’s what Poplus is all about: maximum impact from every bit of code.

    So now..

    Join the Poplus mailing list to find out more about Poplus activities

    Give some applause to our Knight Foundation News Challenge bid