Are you investigating, researching or gathering large quantities of data through Freedom of Information requests? Perhaps you’re a journalist, academic or NGO. We’re looking people based in the UK who’d like to try out our new ‘Projects’ feature for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
Projects allows you to crowdsource the extraction of data from multiple (or batch) FOI requests made to multiple authorities. You can set up a project with a brief description of what it is and what you are hoping to achieve, and some tasks that volunteers can complete to help you with this aim (like categorising responses, or answering questions about the data released).
Once that’s done, you can set it up to invite volunteers, who can help you to extract all the information you need from the released responses.
You’ll be able to download your volunteers’ input as a spreadsheet, meaning analysis of the data is much quicker and easier — so you can get on with the task of forming conclusions and writing up your findings.
What we’ll need from you
Projects is still in its nascent stage, so we need feedback from our testers. This will help us improve the service and tailor it to users’ needs, based on real life use cases.
Right now, we handle the setup and importing of the requests you want to work on manually (that is, our developers have to do it) — but we’re working on improving this aspect, and your feedback will be crucial in shaping the direction our development takes. We’re also looking for general comments, once you’ve used the service, on what’s useful and what’s missing; what you tried to do but couldn’t, and what made things easier for you.
If this sounds interesting, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
Image: Jessica Lee
WhatDoTheyKnow is kept up and running by a dedicated team of volunteers. Do you have the time or skills required to help? If you think you might like to lend a hand, read on to see what they do on a daily basis, as well as some examples of desired site improvements.
One of the volunteers’ many tasks is to maintain what we believe to be the largest existing database of public bodies in the UK (38,362 of them…and counting).
This requires quite a bit of time and effort to keep up to date: email addresses change; bodies merge, get new names or just cease to exist.
The turnover of the financial year always brings an extra slew of required changes; presumably many bodies like to use this date for a nice neat cut-off in their records. So, to give a snapshot of the sort of admin work the volunteers undertake, let’s take a look at every task April 1 brought the team this year.
Thirteen new authorities were added. Some of them are so new that they haven’t yet had any FOI requests made through the site. Perhaps you’ll be the first?
- The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service was formed through the merger of two existing services.
- 39 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups became defunct, and nine new bodies were added:
- NHS North West London Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Kirklees Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Coventry and Warwickshire Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Black Country and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS North East London Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Frimley Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Hampshire, Southampton and Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group
- We also marked 2 NHS Trusts as defunct and added one successor: the University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust.
- We’ve added the new UK Health Security Agency, which has been set up to work on public health threats, combining elements of Public Health England with NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
- All district, borough and county councils in Northamptonshire (eight in total) were abolished on 1 April to be replaced by two new unitary authorities:
When we add a new body that replaces an existing one, we also make sure that no-one can make requests to the now-defunct authority — while at the same time, requests made to it in the past, along with any responses, are still available to view, and requests in progress can still be followed up.
We also set up page redirects to the new body, and replicate all of the metadata that helps WhatDoTheyKnow’s system work behind the scenes. It might be a bit of a faff but it’s worth the effort to keep things running smoothly.
Many thanks to volunteer Martyn for completing the lion’s share of the work listed above.
How you can help
If you know of any other changes that haven’t been reflected on the site, please do let us know.
If this post has reminded you how much you enjoy admin, consider joining the team! We always need more volunteers to help us run the site, keep the database up to date, deal with requests to remove material, and support our users. Find out more here.
There are some specific tasks that are top of our wish-list, too:
- We’d love to do some intensive work on our list of parish level councils to make it comprehensive — this could mean a few people working systematically through a list, or several checking how well their local area is represented on WhatDoTheyKnow. Local democracy matters, more so than ever, and transparency is important for bringing happenings to light (as events in Handforth have recently reminded us!).
- We have ambitions to organise our bodies geographically, showing bodies which operate in particular areas, or showing maps of the areas covered by bodies. See this ticket for a discussion of some of the possibilities which we haven’t had the resource to completely finesse.
mySociety has experience in mapping UK governmental areas, but we’re yet to integrate that expertise into WhatDoTheyKnow — do you have the required coding skills to make it happen?
- We’d like to do more organising of the bodies by their function too, helping guide users to the appropriate body fo their request.
If you have skills in web-scraping, spreadsheet wrangling, database maintenance or other relevant areas and think you can help us — please let us know!
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Image: Anastasia Zhenina
We have the opportunity to help one organisation in Europe set up and run their own Freedom of Information website. Could you be that organisation?
Thanks to ongoing funding from Adessium, we’ve been working with a number of partners right across Europe to set up new Alaveteli websites, and upgrade existing ones with the Pro functionality. The ultimate aim is to increase the quality, quantity and simplicity of European and cross-border Freedom of Information based investigations.
Now we have space to provide technical help and support for one more organisation who would like to launch their own brand new Alaveteli site.
What would that involve?
Running an Alaveteli website is no light undertaking, we’ll be the first to admit it. While we can help you with all the technicalities of getting the site up and launched, there is an ongoing commitment for the recipient organisation, who will need to factor in significant time to administer it, moderate content and help users.
On the plus side, we have masses of experience that will get you set off on the right footing; we’ll do most of the technical stuff for you; and there’s a global community of other people running Alaveteli sites who are always quick to offer friendly advice when you need it.
OK, sounds good – can we apply?
There’s just one important detail: we’re looking for organisations in European countries or jurisdictions where there isn’t already an existing Alaveteli site. Take a quick look at our deployments page to see whether your country is already on the list.
That’s the main requirement — but there are also a few details that the ideal organisation would fulfil.
- So that you understand the service you’d be offering to citizens, you’d already have transparency or freedom of information as a remit or strand of your work
- You might include some people with at least some basic technical or coding skills amongst your workforce;
- You’ll have a source of income (or plans for how to secure one) that will allow you to keep running the site after we’ve got you all set up.
We’re looking to start work in April, with a probable build phase that would take us to December 2021. All work is conducted remotely, and we’d have regular check-ins with you via video call to keep you updated.
We’d then give you all the support you needed in the first few months after your site’s launch, then from March 2022, you’d be all set to take the training wheels off — although, as we say, we and the rest of the Alaveteli community would be around to offer help and advice on an ongoing basis.
Right, that’s everything — so it only remains to say that if you’re still interested, please get in touch to have an initial chat. Or, if you know any organisations that might be a good fit for this opportunity, please send them the link to this post.
Banner image: Gia Oris
Investigative journalism platform The Ferret has just launched an online training course on using Freedom of Information — and all trainees get a free subscription to our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service for professional users of FOI.
Based in Edinburgh, the Ferret is a community journalism initiative that describes itself as ‘for Scotland and beyond’. Since 2012 its members’ investigations have rooted out the truth around local, national and international issues including coronavirus, Brexit, dark money — and much more. They’re a co-operative, so supporters become part-owners. If they want to, they can also access the resources and training to pursue their own stories.
And now, the Ferret’s online Freedom of Information course shares everything the founders know about the use of FOI for tracking down facts. This resource would be useful for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of the act and how to use it, not just for journalism but potentially for campaigning or research purposes too. And it’s not just restricted to the use of FOI in Scotland: you’ll learn everything you need to know to use FOI across the UK… and beyond.
The course costs £30, but six months’ WhatDoTheyKnow Pro usage is bundled in. Since that’s worth £60 on its own, you’re ahead before you even begin.
We’re big fans of the Ferret at mySociety, and we have every confidence that this course will be a springboard for a new generation of great investigative journalists. If you think you might like to be one of them, then why not give it a try? More details here, and in this Twitter thread.
About six million people a year visit mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com; there are well over 100,000 registered users, and over 385,000 requests have been made via the service.
Of course, it’s fantastic that WhatDoTheyKnow is so well used, but the growth and popularity of the site brings its own challenges, not least the day-to-day admin that keeps the site running.
Many aspects of the site’s operation are run by volunteers, supported by mySociety’s staff and trustees — and due to the site’s success we’re looking to expand the volunteer team.
What does volunteering involve?
The work is pretty varied, but there are some frequent and recurring tasks:
Dealing appropriately with requests to remove material from the website
This is one interesting challenge which arises fairly often. Sometimes these requests are from public bodies who’ve released information they didn’t mean to; and they can also come from individuals and companies who are named in correspondence on the site.
These decisions are not always as black and white as you might expect. Some recent examples where we had to carefully consider the balance on both sides were:
- Material which Transport for London were concerned could be used to steal a tube train. We considered: was this a genuine risk? Was our publication really increasing the risk? Was the information already available elsewhere? What was the potential value of publishing the information to tube staff and their representatives, travellers and the wider public?
- Sainsbury’s were concerned that published material didn’t reflect their corporate policy on “workfare”. That may have been the case, but we asked ourselves whether that made it inappropriate to continue to publish the information that had been released. Additionally, where did the public interest lie? What legal risks were there arising from continued publication?
Responding promptly and accordingly to accidental releases
Thankfully, the frequency with which public bodies accidentally release personal information in bulk via Freedom of Information responses is decreasing, but the WhatDoTheyKnow team still have to act promptly when this does occur.
We often help users on both sides of the FOI process. For requesters, we can answer questions about FOI and how to use it, and we also work with the staff of public bodies who are at the receiving end of requests.
And all the rest
There’s always more that can be done to promote the service, draw attention to interesting correspondence on the site, and lobby for improvements to our access to information laws.
The wider team at mySociety help people around the world to establish and run their own online Freedom of Information services; and new features are being added to the UK site to make it more attractive to professional users such as journalists and campaign groups. Volunteers have the opportunity to get involved in these activities, helping steer the direction of new projects, based on their frontline experience of being a site administrator.
Keeping the database of thousands of public bodies up to date is another challenge, especially given the frequency of reorganisations in the UK’s public sector.
We work primarily by email, with regular video conferencing meetings, and occasionally meet up in person.
As a volunteer, you can decide how much time you put in, and what aspects of running the service you decide to take part in — but ideally we’re looking for people who can spare at least an hour or two, a couple of days a week.
We understand that people’s external commitments vary over time, and of course, there’s a flexible approach if a team member needs to step away for a stretch now and then.
What makes a good WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer?
There’s one characteristic that all the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have in common: a belief in the value of Freedom of Information, or, more widely, the expectation of transparency and accountability from the bodies which citizens fund.
As for practical skills: perhaps you’ve been involved in moderating discussions on the web, or have experience with access to information, defamation, or data protection law. Or perhaps you have, or would like to gain, experience dealing with “customers” by email.
Primarily we’re looking for people capable of making good judgements, and who can communicate clearly online.
Before joining the team, new volunteers will have to agree to follow our policies covering subjects such as security and data protection. That said, part of the role may be, if desired, taking a part in developing and refining these, and other, policies as the service grows and changes.
How to apply
If helping us run WhatDoTheyKnow sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in doing, then please do apply to join us.
We only have the capacity to bring on and train a few volunteers at a time, and it is important that those chosen to help administer the service are trustworthy and committed to its policies, direction and non-partisan stance. For these reasons, we are recruiting volunteers via a formal application process.
To apply please write to us before the 20th of March 2017, introducing yourself, and letting us know about any relevant interests or experience you have.
What do we offer in return?
As a volunteer, the main reward comes from the satisfaction of assisting users, making good decisions, and helping run what is fast becoming a key part of the country’s journalistic and democratic infrastructure.
Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.
Other ways to help out
If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps there’s something on mySociety’s Get Involved page that is — or you could:
Image: MarkBuckawicki [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Poplus Components are interdependent, Open Source pieces of code for civic and democratic websites. Find out more on the Poplus website.
Do you have an idea for a new Poplus Component? Or would you like to add features to an existing one?
We’re currently inviting groups and individuals to apply for grants. You may apply for up to USD $5,000 to help you with development work on creating or improving a Poplus Component.
- Priority will be given to proposals for the development of new Poplus Components, or new features for existing Components.
- We will also consider grants for those planning to implement existing Poplus Components into wider projects.
How to apply
Please complete this form before 10th September 2014.
We hope to inform successful applicants by 17th September. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Help us fund more projects
This funding will be the final expenditure from the original Poplus start-up grant.
If you represent a funding organisation, and might be interested in helping support the growth of Poplus through funding micro-grants, please do let us know! Poplus Components represent great ‘bang for your buck’, since they are re-usable across the entire eDemocracy worldwide community.