Our fifth Civic Tech Surgery discussed the question of how the civic tech community can learn from, and contribute to, climate action, to drive impactful societal change. The subsequent working group commissioned The Democracy Project to establish Maai Makwa (indigenous Kikuyu language for My Water): a water quality and quantity monitoring project integrated with practical civic education to empower individuals, households and communities in Kenya to participate in freshwater conservation and sustainable water resource exploitation.
Kenya is classified as a chronically water-stressed country by the United Nations. Population growth, growing agricultural water use, frequent droughts and mains supply disruptions all increase the difficulties of accessing and preserving water.
Through this project, the Demography Project have developed:
- An interactive Water Cost Calculator to enable Kenyans to understand the full cost of water services from all 81 water companies in the country
- A compilation of national and local water laws and regulations
- In-person forums in vulnerable communities to help them understand water rights and contribute to water conservation
- A real-time Water Distribution calendar
- Collaborations with higher education institutions, recruiting eight student climate champions who conducted field research on water supplies in their regions and authored stories on their findings
- The deployment of low-cost, compact, modern meteorological kits and water monitoring devices to communities
The project was showcased at World Wetlands Day celebrations, and collaborations with local youth groups recognised by a visit from the President of Kenya, Dr William Ruto.
As a result of this work the Demography Project have entered into fourteen partnership/ membership agreements with local and global organisations working in freshwater conservation and youth networking. They continue to develop the project, with plans in progress to translate the content and tools into local languages.
We’re impressed by this extensive set of outcomes and we hope that it will help bring about solutions for the water issues of the region.
To find out more about Maai Mawka:
The TICTeC subgrant allowed PolicyLab Africa to launch this project, an open-source reporting tool that enables citizens to document and report violent incidents during Nigeria’s elections. The idea is to empower people to independently create, confirm, and track violent incidents in real time during the election season — and more importantly, provide a lasting data resource for journalists, election observers, activists and civil society.
As discovered during the initial TICTeC surgery, the global civic tech community often faces challenges from working in hostile environments. These range from government resistance to operating in conflict and post-conflict societies. After that initial discussion focused on ways in which organisations can thrive in challenging contexts, the subsequent Action Lab agreed to commission a piece of work which repurposed existing software to benefit civic tech organisations working in hostile environments.
EVT uses the Independent Electoral Commission’s polling unit location data to track and map locations of electoral violence in Nigeria; and OpenStreetMap to geolocate each polling unit address and enable user identification to verify report locations. Reports, which can include photos or videos, are visualised on a map and the data collected is openly available for download and export.
The tool has already seen use. During the Nigerian elections on 25 February, 59 cases of violence were reported via the EVT. The tool will be deployed again for the State and Governorship elections in March. PolicyLab Africa plan to continue to make improvements and hope to expand deployment to other countries to make more data available on electoral violence across Africa.
All code and documentation is open and available on the PolicyLab Africa GitHub repository for other organisations to use and adapt.
We’ve recently introduced two new ways to locate yourself, and your reports, on FixMyStreet.
From up in the air
You might have noticed a discreet little ‘aerial’ button on the bottom of FixMyStreet’s map pages recently.
This toggles the view from the usual Ordnance Survey maps to a Bing aerial satellite view:
We hope this will make it easier for people to locate their reports accurately, in those cases where it’s a bit easier to identify landmarks from above.
This isn’t an entirely new departure for FixMyStreet: as far back as 2013 the site we made for the City of Zurich had a satellite view as default — and indeed, it still does.
At the moment, this feature is available on the nationwide fixmystreet.com, and on fifteen client authorities’ sites. Why not all authorities’ implementations? It’s basically to do with whether they have their own map servers: where we host the maps, it’s obviously more straightforward for us to deliver the alternative view.
Open Location Codes
Another option to help you find just the right spot for your report comes with the introduction of Open Location Codes, also known as OLCs or Plus Codes.
Coincidentally, these also have a connection with Zurich, as they were developed in Google’s offices there. They’re basically a more convenient and quicker way of entering latitude and longitude, and can be used to identify any spot on the planet (though of course, each FixMyStreet site has its own bounds).
As their name suggests, OLCs are open source and available for anyone to use. Want to try it out? Google Maps on mobile gives you an OLC when you drop a pin: see more details here.
This function adds to the number of ways you can search for a location on FixMyStreet from the homepage search box, which include inputting a postcode, a street name, an area, a town or city, latitude and longitude, and allowing the site to auto-locate you.
So here’s hoping these developments will allow for ever more accuracy in report locations.
Image: William Hook
This brings some substantial improvements to the code. The update is available to anyone running a site on the FixMyStreet platform, which includes our own fixmystreet.com; the installations we provide for councils and authorities; and the FixMyStreet instances run by others, in places from Australia to Uruguay.
If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform yourself, or are just interested in the technical details, you can read the release notes here.
Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the new front-end features you might notice if you’re a user of FixMyStreet.
Run the site as an app
FixMyStreet can now be added to phones (and desktops for that matter) as a ‘progressive app’. Here’s what to look for when you visit fixmystreet.com:
On Chrome for Android:
Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.
Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.
Then select ‘add to home screen’.
On Firefox for Android:
Look for the pop up notification or tap the home icon with a plus sign in it in the URL bar.
Any of these methods will install a version of FixMyStreet that will behave like an app, placing an icon on your desktop, browser start page or home screen.
This way there is no need to download or update from the app store, and changes to the main website (which are invariably released sooner than on the app) will be immediately available to you.
Cobrands (for example the councils that use FixMyStreet as part of their own websites, and people running FixMyStreet in their own countries) can provide their own logo and colourscheme as well.
Mobile browser improvements
Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.
- If you use the geolocation function (‘use my location’), your position will be displayed on the map:
- When viewing an area, you can access the filters to narrow the reports displayed down by their status (fixed/open etc) and category:
- If you’re about to report something that looks like a duplicate, you’ll not only be shown the report/s that have already been made, but you’ll also see a small inline map without having to scroll back to the main map to check where they are.
- The site recognises that when you’re on a mobile, the message about uploading a photo shouldn’t invite you to ‘drag and drop’, but rather to either take a new one or select a photo from your phone.
- If you’ve placed the pin incorrectly, the ‘try again’ process is clearer.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then your Twitter character count just went stratospheric. Now, when you share a report on places like Twitter or Facebook, if there’s a photo included in the report, that will also be pulled through.
Previously, the ‘open graph image’ that was shown by default was the same for every report — which could get a bit boring in aggregate, and certainly missed some of the impact that people might want to share when they’re posting about their own, or others’ reports.
Social media isn’t the only place that FixMyStreet reports can be piped to, though — the site also has several RSS capabilities that have been baked in since its early days.
For those not totally up to speed with RSS and what it can do, we’re now no longer displaying them as raw XML but as a nice simple web page that explains its purpose.
To see this in action, click ‘Local Alerts’ in the top menu of any page. Here’s a before and after:
What benefits one, benefits all
Much of this work is thanks to NDI, the National Democratic Institute.
NDI offer the FixMyStreet codebase as one of their DemTools, installing it in countries around the world as an innovation which empowers citizens to keep their neighbourhoods clean and safe.
Thanks to this partnership, NDI funded the addition of new features which they had identified as desirable — and which, thanks to the open codebase, will benefit users of every FixMyStreet site worldwide.
There are some other significant additions in this release, including integration, back end and security improvements, all of which will be of most interest to developers and site admins — so if you’d like to see them, head over to the full write up on the FixMyStreet platform blog.
Image: Max Fuchs
Alaveteli is our platform for anyone who wants to run their own Freedom of Information website. It’s what underpins our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow, and it’s open source software available for anyone, in any part of the world, to use.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been making improvements to Alaveteli – the aim is to make it as easy as possible to install and use.
You’ll now find that – as well as a snazzy new look for the Alaveteli site – there’s much better documentation and installation instructions. We’ve also consolidated documentation into one place, and we’re working through it all, making sure that everything in there is completely up to date.
In short, if you’ve been thinking about running your own Right To Know site, there’s no better time to get started! The Alaveteli community are standing by to help you – and the documentation’s never been clearer.
The right conference, held at the right time and attended by people with common problems, can sometimes give birth to whole new organisations. I was at OpenTech when the Open Rights Group was born, and on a grander scale the Red Cross and the UN both featured conferences at catalytic moments in their early history.
Last week in Santiago, Chile, a conference took place that felt like exactly such a moment – PoplusCon. People from 27 countries spent two days talking about their shared goals and desires, and from it the skeleton of a new federation – the Poplus federation – started to take shape.
Not everyone at the conference worked on identical projects, or had identical skills. Some people were specialists in tracking suspicious relationships (‘This guy’s brother-in-law gets all the contracts’), others were big into training journalists how to use FOI, others specialised in making important datasets more accessible to members of the public, others still were journalists, skilled at constructing stories. But one theme emerged pretty quickly – people wanted better, easier, more reliable ways of sharing knowledge and sharing technology, so that they could all save time, effort and money.
What could a new federation do for you?
And so that is how the conversation turned to the idea of founding a new federation – an organisation that could serve the needs of many different groups without being run or owned by any one of them. In a brainstorm session about what people wanted from a new federation, the following ideas were raised:
- Running events to facilitate more sharing of ideas and tech
- Publishing stories about successful and unsuccessful projects, especially where those stories need to cross language barriers to spread
- Vetting and endorsing data standards
- Access to a community of peers (for sharing experience, encouragement, tips and tricks etc)
- Resources for projects that are running short
- Help and advice on making projects sustainable
- Certification of what counts as a Poplus Component
- Where groups face common challenges, perhaps coordinate advocacy
- Organisation of mentorship, exchanges and placements
This wish list is clearly far more than a nascent organisation could arrange in the near future, but there was some informal voting and the top priorities fairly quickly emerged. People really wanted access to their peers, and to the stories that they tell. And there was a strong wish to see Poplus Components become more official, and better explained.
Getting Real – Getting Involved
But a list is just a list without people willing to make it real. And so without doubt the most awesome thing that took place at PoplusCon was that eight people immediately volunteered to form a committee that would bring Poplus into being, representing half a dozen countries in different parts of the world.
This committee, which is completely open for anyone to join, will be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to agree on a plan for the first 12 months of the Poplus federation. It will work out how the new-born federation should govern itself, and what the first things that this entirely volunteer-run group should be doing. It’s an exciting, fragile moment and I’ve not seen anything like it in my ten-odd years working in this field. There’s no boss, no leader, just some people trying to build something of shared value.
Right now there are no rules, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy. In fact there’s nothing but some hope, enthusiasm and some shared dreams of a stronger community of individuals and organisations.
I hope that if you read this and think that Poplus sounds cool, that you’ll consider joining the committee too. All you have to do is join the mailing list and ask where and when to show up. If you come to online committee meetings a couple of times, you’re de facto one of the people who runs Poplus. What happens next is – quite literally – down to you.
Then come and join mySociety for a chat, beer and pizza at the Founders Hub in Cardiff on Wednesday 2nd April!
We’ll be joined by guest speakers:
Your Senedd was launched in 2011 and aims to make the Welsh Assembly more accessible to the public by providing information on all Assembly Members and publishing all Assembly debates. Sam will be chatting about his motivations behind setting up Your Senedd and the development process.
Daniele Procida: Daniele manages Cardiff University’s School of Medicine’s website, and the applications that publish it. These include Arkestra and other open-source Python/Django applications.
Come along to hear Daniele’s talk “The bodiless head of the programmer”.
He’ll also be around to chat about his work on django CMS and encouraging others to contribute to open source software.
When: Wednesday 2nd April, drop in any time between 6pm and 9pm
Where: The Founders Hub, 119 St Mary Street, Cardiff, CF10 1DY
How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page: http://lanyrd.com/2014/mysocial-2-april/, so we know you’re coming.
Who: Anyone who fancies it.
NB: Look out for the mySociety hoodie (they look like this, only usually with a person inside). Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.
Photo by [Duncan] (CC)
However, they can be very important, or even historic. They can reveal big plans that will affect lots of people, and they are a basic requirement of political accountability.
But the way in which transcripts are made available online today doesn’t reflect this importance. They tend to be published as hundreds of PDFs, and look more or less like they were made in the 1950s.
We think that the people who are affected by the decisions and plans announced in transcribed meetings deserve better.
What is SayIt?
SayIt is an open source tool for publishing speeches, discussions and dialogues, simply and clearly, online. Search functionality is built in, you can link to any part of a transcript, and the whole thing works nicely on mobile devices.
SayIt can be used either as a hosted service, or it can be built directly into your own website, as a Django app. Here are some examples of what it looks like in its hosted, standalone form:
The complete works of Shakespeare – as a demonstration of SayIt’s flexibility in handling different kinds of transcript
However, SayIt’s main purpose is to be built into other sites and apps. We don’t have a live demo of this today, but one of our international partners will soon be launching a new Parliamentary Monitoring site which uses SayIt to publish years of parliamentary transcripts.
SayIt is also 100% open data compatible, and we use a cut-down version of the Akoma Ntoso open standard for data import.
What isn’t SayIt?
Not a site full of data curated and uploaded by mySociety – it’s a tool for redeployment all over the net. We’ll host deployments where that’s helpful to people, though.
Not primarily about Britain – whilst we’re a social enterprise based in the UK, SayIt has been built with an international perspective. We hope it will serve the needs of people watching politicians in places like Kenya and South Africa.
Not solely a mySociety project – it’s actually an international collaboration, via the Poplus network (see more below).
Not (yet) a tool to replace Microsoft Word as the way you write down transcripts in the first place. This is coming as we move from Alpha to Beta, though.
Why are we building SayIt?
SayIt is one of the Poplus Components. Poplus is a global collaboration of groups that believe it is currently too difficult and expensive to build effective new digital tools to help citizens exert power over institutions.
Poplus Components are loosely joined tools, mostly structured as web services, that can be used to radically decrease the development time of empowerment sites and apps.
SayIt is the newest component, and aims to reduce the difficulty and cost of launching services that contain transcripts – in particular websites that allow people to track the activities of politicians. Using SayIt or other Poplus components you can build your site in whatever language and framework suits your wishes, but save time by using the components to solve time-consuming problems for you.
The founders of Poplus are FCI in Chile, and mySociety in the UK – and we are hoping that the launch of SayIt will help grow the network. The project has been made possible by a grant from Google.org, while early iterations were aided by the Technology Strategy Board.
Interested in publishing transcripts via SayIt? Here’s what to do…
Having taken a look at the demos, we hope at least some of you are thinking ‘I know of some transcripts that would be better if published like this’.
If you are interested, then there are two approaches we’d recommend:
If you’re a coder, or if you have access to technical skills, read about how to convert your data into the open standard we use. Then talk to us about how to get this data online.
If you don’t have access to technical skills, get in touch about what you’re interested in publishing, and we’ll explore the options with you.
Note to coders – We’ve not yet spent a lot of time making SayIt easy to deploy locally, so we know it may be a challenge. We’re here to help.
Where might SayIt help?
SayIt comes from a desire to publish the speeches of politicians. But we know that there are many other possible uses, which is why we built the Shakespeare demo.
We think SayIt could be useful for publishing and storing transcripts of:
Local council meetings
Academic research interviews and focus groups
Academic seminars, lectures, etc
Market research focus groups
Historic archives of events such as a coronation or key debate
These are just a few of our ideas, but we bet you have others – please do tell us in the comments below.
What’s coming next
At the moment, SayIt only covers publishing transcripts, not creating them. Needless to say, this lack of an authoring interface is a pretty big gap, but we are launching early (as an Alpha) because we want to know how you’ll use it, what features you want us to build, and what doesn’t work as well as we anticipated. We also want to see if we can attract other people to co-develop the code with us, which is the real spirit of the Poplus network.
We’ll also be adding the ability to subscribe to alerts so that you’ll get an email every time a keyword occurs (just as you can on our other websites, such as FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow). This feature will come into its own for ongoing series of transcripts such as council meetings.
Image by Columbia Phonograph Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This month we released a new version of FixMyStreet. Amongst the new features, fixes, and thingamajigs were some small improvements added by two volunteers, Andrew and Andy.
Even though these are not core pieces of functionality — in fact, precisely because they are not — we want to draw your attention to why they were included, and why this is a Very Good Thing. And perhaps, if you’re a coder who wants to put something into an Open Source project but hasn’t quite found a way in, Andrew and Andy’s work will nudge you into becoming a contributor too.
One of the axioms of Open Source is that, because anyone can read the source code, in theory anyone can contribute to it. In practice, though, it’s not really as simple as that. Both ends of the “anyone can contribute” idea require effort:
- Before contributing to a project of any complexity (as we hope you want to do), there’s often a lot to learn, or figure out, before any work can even begin;
- Before accepting contributions to such a project (keen as we are to do so), there’s an overhead of testing, checking, and managing the incoming code.
The ugly real world
The basic issue here is that software is complex — no matter how well-written, tested and documented program code is, if the problem it’s solving is in the real world, it’s not going to be simple.
This is especially true of anything used by the public, because often you can only make things seem simple at the front (such as a clean web interface or “user journey”) by working hard behind the scenes with data structures and processes that handle the underlying complexity. It’s inevitably true of any projects which have been developed over time — programmers like to use the term “legacy code” to describe anything that wasn’t written then way they’d choose to write it now.
Often the problems that software is solving are not quite as obvious as they first appear. At mySociety we’ve got a wealth of experience and actual usage data that ultimately changes the way we build, and develop, our platforms. We understand the fields we work in well (technically, the nerds like to call these the “problem domain”), whether it’s governmental practice or civic user behaviour, and that’s often knowledge that’s not encapsulated anywhere in the program code.
Furthermore, any established platform must protect against the risk that new changes break old behaviour — something that regression testing is designed to catch. This is especially important on platforms like FixMyStreet or Alaveteli where the software is already running in multiple installations.
This is why we have a team of full-time, experienced, and (thanks to our rigorous recruitment process) talented programmers who can invest the time and effort to be familiar with all these things when they set to work coding.
But this builds up to an impediment: sensitivity to any of these issues is enough to make anyone think twice about simply forking our code and starting to hack on it for us.
How it sometimes works
In practice, then, how does anything get contributed? How come it doesn’t all get written by our own coders?
The answer is, of course, we do work with major contributors outside our own team (have a look at the activity on our github repos to see them) — but it always requires a period of support and on-line discussion both before and during the process. There’s also the business of testing, and sometimes politely pushing back on, pull requests (which is how code contributions are submitted). But the fact of the matter is that this is only possible for people who are willing to spend time familiarising themselves with the specific code, technologies, and practices that we’re using on that project. These tend to be hard-code devs, and — here’s the point — they’re always experienced Open-Sourcers: this will never be the first time they’ve worked on such a project.
Which is where the little features come in.
The joy of small
We noticed this problem — that contributing code to our projects is simply not easy for us or for contributors. Importantly, it’s not just us: it’s Open Source everywhere. But we can’t simply dismiss the opportunity for contribution. We want to encourage coders to do this, because we believe that Open Source is intrinsically a good thing.
We do two things to make it easier to contribute:
- We identify small features that a coder can approach without a full understanding of the code and the problem domain;
- We help people (like you!) get started by opening up a laptop at our weekly meetups.
The first of these seems obvious now: when we add issues (an idea for a new feature, or maybe a bugfix) to our github repos, if we think they’re candidates for manageable, isolated work, we tag them with the label: Suitable for volunteers (like this).
Often these turn out to be “nice-to-haves” that one of our full-time devs can’t be pulled off more pressing problems to add just now. (Case in point: Andrew added a date-picker to the FixMyStreet admin stats page, and three of our own staff had stumbled upon and applauded the difference it had made within a week of it going live).
It means it’s much easier for you to get involved, because often it’s a little, isolated piece of code. And it’s much more manageable for us, because the change you’ll be submitting is also isolated.
So if you’re looking for something to tackle, pick one of those issues, and let us know (just to check nobody else has baggsied it already). Fork the repo, cut the code, write the tests, submit a pull request!
But wait — if that last paragraph made you gulp, here’s the second thing we do: meetups. Of course, this is less helpful if you can’t make it to London on Wednesdays, but the concept is sound. Put simply, if there is a barrier to entry to diving in, and if one-on-one time with a dev, and some pizza, is what it takes to overcome that, it’s time well spent for you to come and see us.
Not 100% confident with git? Not sure when
db/schema.sqlgets used or how we like to handle migrations? No problem: we’re happy to guide you.
If this has struck a chord with you — you’d love to be an Open Source contributor one day, and you think mySociety projects make the world a better place — perhaps you should take a poke in our repos, or come along to a meetup. Start small, but do start.
Oh, and Andrew and Andy — thanks guys 😉
Photo by Matt Katzenberger (CC)
For an organisation whose members normally work from home, we’ve been pretty sociable recently, with meet-ups, conferences, and our annual retreat. We’re glad to discover that we haven’t actually lost the ability to communicate face to face…
If you’d like to come and sample our sharply honed social skills for yourselves, there are a number of opportunities still to come.
Every Wednesday: London meet-ups
If you’re in London, do feel free to drop by and say hello, any Wednesday from 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm. We meet at the Mozilla London space – and there are often other interesting things going on too.
Meet-ups are not just for coders – they’re for anyone who would like to talk more about mySociety projects or the wider eDemocracy field. On October 30th, we’re tying in with the Open Government Partnership event; you’re welcome to attend then or any other week.
Fancy coming along? Add your name to our Lanyrd pages here.
[Above: Our meet-ups are not always this busy! On this night, we happened to coincide with a Mozfest planning event.. speaking of which, see below]
25th – 27th October: Mozfest
Mozfest in Ravensbourne, London, is Mozilla’s annual innovative open web event for ‘technologists and creators’.
The event kicks off on the night of Friday 25th with a Science Fair. We’ll be there, showing our wares – in this case, we’ll be hoping to meet many of the internatonal attendeees and let them know about our open source software. But if you’re not an international attendee, you should totally swing by and say hello too.
30th October: Edinburgh
The next non-London mySociety meet-up will be in Edinburgh – watch this blog, our Twitter stream and Facebook page for details of precisely where (it’ll be a nice, central pub that serves food… suggestions are welcome).
That’s in advance of our attendance at the Channel Shift conference – but you don’t have to be a council employee to drop in. Come and share a pint and have a chat, whichever aspect of our work interests you.
20th November: Online Information conference
mySociety’s Director Tom will be giving the keynote presentation at the Online Information conference, the theme of which is “adapting to disruptive technologies and creating value with people, platforms and information”. Feel free to grab Tom afterwards for a chat!
4th December: Manchester
As with Edinburgh, we’re pitching up in Manchester for a Channel Shift conference, and will be taking the opportunity to mingle with lovely locals the night before. Again, pub suggestions are more than welcome.
We hope to see you soon at one of these events. And, if you’re wondering what we look like, well, you’re in luck. At our recent retreat we took a photo of the entire team (plus a few guests). Here we are in all our glory – click to see a larger version, if you dare.