Today sees the launch of FixMyBlock, an online toolkit for people living in tower blocks.
Tower blocks come with their own distinct problems, from unsafe construction to risks of fire. The shocking events at Grenfell Tower have brought such issues back to the public eye, but we don’t have to go far in history to see other disasters such as the Ronan Point collapse and the Lakanal House fire.
The simple fact is that not all tower blocks are safe, and not all landlords are doing enough to address this.
Today, thousands of tenants are living in conditions that affect their health and their safety. While working on this project, we heard of people living with extreme mould and damp, with recurrent cockroach infestations, and, shockingly, with cracks in the structure of their flats that are wide enough to pass a hand through (watch this video for a visual depiction you won’t forget).
Additionally, since Grenfell, many tenants have been living in fear that their blocks, constructed with the same unsafe cladding, might suffer a similar fate.
And, though they’ve tried to ask their landlords to address their concerns, they haven’t got anywhere.
So what can we do about it?
Our project began as an investigation into how our popular street reporting software – FixMyStreet – could be repurposed to help tower block tenants report and monitor safety and maintenance problems in their buildings.
But during the discovery phase (which you can read about in our report here) we found that reporting issues wasn’t the problem most tenants were facing. And our alpha testing (documented in this report here) confirmed it – a FixMyStreet for tower blocks wouldn’t actually help. Our research showed that most tenants already knew who to report their issue to. And, unlike on FixMyStreet where public reporting can help highlight problem areas, many residents were uncomfortable with reporting their safety concerns on a public forum.
A better reporting process could wait. Instead, together with Tower Blocks UK, we wanted to solve the real underlying problem: equipping tower block tenants with the necessary understanding of their rights, their paths to escalation, and the tools they need to get their voices heard.
FixMyBlock – empowering not reporting
So, despite the name, FixMyBlock isn’t a “FixMyStreet for tower blocks” – it’s a living, evolving toolkit of legal primers, template letters, case studies, and action guides, that will help tower block tenants make progress on what are often incredibly sticky, complicated safety and maintenance issues.
FixMyBlock begins by laying out the conventional steps to getting things fixed — but when these have failed, tenants can also access information on their legal rights and the power of collective action, with case studies demonstrating what has been achieved by residents’ groups, ongoing campaigns, press coverage and other channels of engagement.
mySociety has worked with Tower Blocks UK and a number of experts in the field to create the site, which Tower Blocks UK will continue to run after handover. The work has been funded by the Legal Education Foundation.
The site launches with information for social tenants in England and Wales, and in time Tower Blocks UK will expand the content to cover all types of tenancy across all of the UK. Meanwhile, much of the content is applicable for all, so don’t hold off from using it if you have a private landlord, or live in Scotland/NI — just be aware that some of the laws mentioned might differ in your own case.
Image: Jimmy Chang
With the charity formally known as UK Citizens Online Democracy now officially known as mySociety it makes sense that we reconsider the name of our wholly owned commercial arm, which until recently was known as mySociety Ltd.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to the newly christened: SocietyWorks.
SocietyWorks reaffirms our belief in citizens and society, creates a related but distinct propostion from the charity mySociety, and introduces a practical and relevant descriptor for a provision of local authority services. We think it works.
We have decided that now is the time to simplify the way we talk about ourselves whilst providing greater clarity and a more meaningful brand for our commercial work, especially for our local government partners.
And with fear and uncertainty all around — the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the fabric of our communities at risk — we can’t think of a more important time to make the case that society works.
Over the coming months we’ll be rolling out the new name with the intent of it becoming an overall brand for our local government services. FixMyStreet Pro will remain the core product offered by SocietyWorks, with additional services including feature add-ons and standalone services sitting alongside. These will include new products which extend the capabilities of FixMyStreet relating to Waste, Environment, and other place based services.
We’re also incorporating our information and comms based services, initially by offering FOI Works as part of our local government suite.
You can find out more about these new services as they become available at SocietyWorks.org.
Image: Pierre Chatel Innocenti
“Every citizen has the right to consult every administrative document and make a copy of it”
That’s article 32 of the Belgian constitution. Pretty clear, isn’t it?
But until the process is put into the public arena, it’s not that easy to see whether it’s actually being upheld.
Thanks to the latest Alaveteli launch, that’s about to happen. Anti-corruption NGO Anticor Belgium have just launched a Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be, running on our Alaveteli platform, with our hosting and development support.
Not only should it make any lapses in authorities’ responses highly visible (acting as a “transparency barometer” is how AntiCor put it), but, as with every Alaveteli website, it will also make the whole process of submitting and tracking a response super-easy for citizens.
AntiCor strongly believe that increasing transparency of public authority documents will benefit Belgian society as a whole.
In their experience, most Belgian authorities haven’t respected the country’s access to information laws and often ignore their obligations. AntiCor hope that by exposing these bodies through the new site (and via their extensive network of media contacts) they will improve transparency across the board.
Volunteer lawyers are on hand to help with tricky cases. This initial launch covers all public authorities in the Brussels region, but AntiCor hope to include all Belgian bodies eventually, too. They also plan to translate the site into Dutch.
Launching with a splash – and some serious questions
AntiCor are marking the launch with six requests for information which, they think, ought to be in the public domain, ranging from the release of safety registers for social housing and schools (“Has asbestos been found in your child’s school? By law you are entitled to see the inspection documents”), to analyses of bids for public contracts. You can read more (in French) here.
Belgian media has been eager to give the new site publicity, an indication of the collective desire for more transparency in the country.
“It’s a good day for democracy” begins Le Vif, while public broadcasting authority RTBF quotes AntiCor: “Transparency is a basic instrument for improving society – and sometimes the only defence against corruption, the abuse or misuse of public resources”
La Capitale note that “governments themselves are sometimes unaware of their obligation to transparency to citizens”.
News outlet Bruzz also underlines AntiCor’s stance on authorities who neglect their duty towards transparency: “In some cases it’s due to careless negligence, but in many cases, it’s down to willful default. [By refusing to disclose documents, authorities can] keep things like a poor use of public money away from public attention, and politicians can go about their business without sufficient democratic control”.
Let’s hope that Transparencia is the first step towards implementing some of that democratic control. We wish Anticor all the best.
On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.
The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.
The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.
Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.
The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.
So what’s next?
Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.
In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.
Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.
In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.
Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.
Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.
Enjoy what we do here at mySociety?
The good news is that mySociety’s experience and skills can be all yours… and now we have a brand new website that gives us enough space to really go into detail about what we offer.
Open for business
At mySociety Services you’ll find everything you need to know about hiring us for your organisation.
We’ve included a bunch of case studies—in fact, they make up the bulk of the new site—because we reckon that’s the most immediate way to show you how we work, and how we’d approach your projects, too.
Elsewhere, we’ve divided our services up, so there’s an obvious place to look whether you need a web application building, or perhaps something nifty with maps, or your organisation could benefit from a little direction with everything digital. Plus, there’s a page about our “off the peg” products such as FixMyStreet for Councils.
Still doing good
So far, so much like any other digital agency. But there is, of course, the little thing that makes us different: when you commission us, all the revenue goes to support the mySociety charitable projects that you know and love.
The mySociety Services site is a step forward for us, and it represents a coming of age for our commercial team. You might like to think of us as an agency in our own right from here on in.
But meanwhile, we’ll still be retaining the same ethos and working methods that inform everything we do at mySociety. Hopefully, you’ll find that it’s the best of both worlds.
Enough of the chit-chat. We’re ready to talk commercial: come and see what we offer.
Transparency, accountability and open government are huge themes for African citizens as the number of internet and mobile phone users jump up across the continent. People are connecting and realising that the internet provides them with a quick and easy way to engage with politics, be that via social media or citizen engagement websites.
One group have just launched a parliamentary monitoring platform for Zimbabwe using our Pombola platform. We helped them with the original set up, some small technical issues and some general platform advice, but KuvakaZim has only gotten to launch due to the huge dedication and work of its founders, Regina and Peter.
“The KuvakaZim project was born from a general concern regarding the accountability and activities of Zimbabwean Members of parliament and their duties in regard of their representative role,” Regina Dumba, lead volunteer of the project, tells the world in her press release.
“Many articles, books and studies have explored the issue of good governance in African countries and how it relates to transparency, accountability, and Government performance. Knowing the causes and effects of these plights, we believe it is now time for action in Africa and in Zimbabwe. Until we start putting words into action, only then can we rebuild our country.” She continues on the KuvakaZim blog.
Creating the site.
Regina, Cleopatra and Peter, who has been volunteering technical skills for the project, contacted mySociety in July after being inspired by Kenya’s Mzalendo. Since then they have been working tirelessly to gather MP data and information on constitutional rights, how democracy works in Zimbabwe, electoral law and political parties. The site now allows Zimbabweans to learn more about how their government works, as well as the duties of their MP and whether they are carrying these out. This has been especially timely because of the recent elections on July 31, 2013.
That’s not to say that the site has got to this stage without any hitches however..
It’s been difficult to find official boundary data for Zimbabwe, which means we haven’t yet managed to load an MP look up onto the site. The hope is that this will come in the future, along with other features such as Hansard and the potential to write to your politician.
Despite this the team have managed to gain some on the ground volunteer support and launch the site this week. If you want to learn more about KuvakaZim the check out their blog and their twitter stream. We’ll be following their progress too!
Image credits: Patola Connection by Whologwhy | Hands up by Pim Geerts | Bend in the Road by Andrew Ashton | All Creative Commons licensed photographs. Thank you for making your content creative commons.
Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.
All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.
In the beginning…
To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.
But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”
“The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”
It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.
What was the most challenging?
According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.
“The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”
Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front […] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.
Launch and results
Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.
Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.
But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”
So what have DATA taken away from the process?
“Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”
The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. […] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”