When TheyWorkForYou launched back in 2004, it was a world first. Never before had parliamentary data been used to power a digital tool designed specifically for citizens to better understand how their MPs were representing them in parliament.
Innovations like TheyWorkForYou and our open source code Pombola, which was designed to help people elsewhere run their own parliamentary monitoring sites, have helped make mySociety a bit of a global expert in the digital transformation of parliaments and parliamentary data, and over the years we have been working a lot with international parliaments to help them to realise their own digital potential, so that their people can better hold them to account.
One of our key partners in this work is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, alongside whom we have worked with parliaments from Morocco to Uzbekistan to Myanmar. While each parliament is fascinatingly unique, there are very common opportunities, risks and barriers that arise in digital transformation, and an exploration of these themes is the subject of a new report published today.
‘Connected Parliaments’, published by Westminster Foundation for Democracy during Participation and Openness Week 2021, is a jointly authored report by WFD and me, mySociety’s Head of Research. It considers how local and contextual factors affect the digitisation of parliamentary business, and the potential for digital tools to empower citizens to better hold their political institutions to account.
Image: Fabio Bracht
In May 2019 Pressure Vessels, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), sought to understand increasing levels of stress on the mental health of academic staff.
Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University used Freedom of Information to understand the changing state of staff bodies’ mental health, analysing the demand for counselling and occupational health services within HE.
The first Pressure Vessels report focused primarily on academic staff, while this follow-up broadens the brief to incorporate professional services staff.
“Professional services staff are often marginalised in discussions about the higher education workforce, despite the significant roles they play. They are also more likely to be vulnerable to restructuring and redundancy,” say the study’s authors.
Of course, like every other sector in society, Higher Education has experienced a severe change in working conditions due to the global pandemic. But as Dr Morrish points out, “higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”
The data in Pressure Vessels II was obtained by requests for information made to 17 universities, on staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.
The first report inspired Sheffield lecturer Tom Stafford to plot the figures onto graphs for each institution — he also offered to make graphs for any more data that could be obtained from other HEIs.
We are pleased to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used as part of a campaign to understand conditions and press for improvements. It’s just one more example of how our right to information can be used for the greater good. Read Pressure Vessels II here.
Image: Nik Shuliahin
Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.
The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019, focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.
We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:
“Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.
“I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.
“Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”
The need for FOI
Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.
“Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.
“One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.
“These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.
Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:
“A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.
“Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.
Making requests in public
Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?
“It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.
That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.
And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?
“For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”
It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:
“I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”
Image: Bruno Mira
Earlier this year, we were fortunate enough to be contacted by Brian Keegan, Assistant Professor in Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, who specialises in the field of network analysis.
Brian and his team were planning to mine the official biographies of every legislator published by the Library of Congress – going back to the first Congress in 1789 – and add the information as structured data to Wikidata. Having heard of our involvement with WikiProject Every Politician, they wanted to understand more about contributing.
The research team, which included professors from the Libraries, Political Science and Information Science departments, planned to combine this biographical data with more common data in political science about voting and co-sponsorship, so that interesting questions could be asked, such as “Do Ivy League graduates form cliques?” or “Are medical doctors more likely to break with their party on votes concerning public health?”. Their hypothesis was that the biographical backgrounds of legislators could play an important role in legislative behaviours.
However, the first big step before questions could be asked (or SPARQL queries made) was supporting undergraduate students to enter biographical data for every member of Congress (going right back to the first) on Wikidata. This has not generally made it into the datasets that political scientists use to study legislative behaviour, and as students began to enter data about these historical figures, it quickly became apparent why: non-existent nations, renamed cities, and archaic professions all needed to be resolved and mapped to Wikidata’s contemporary names and standardised formats.
Nine months on, the team and ten undergraduates have revised over 1,500 Wikidata items about members of Congress, from the 104th to the 115th Congresses (1995-2018) and the 80th– 81st Congresses (1947-1951), which is 15% of the way through all members dating back to the first Congress in 1789!
They started running SPARQL queries this summer.
Joe Zamadics, a political science PhD student who worked on the project explained the potential of combining these data: “One example we tried was looking at House member ideology by occupation. The graph below shows the ideology of three occupations: athletes, farmers, and teachers (in all, roughly 130 members). The x-axis shows common ideology (liberal to conservative) and the y-axis shows member’s ideology on non-left/right issues such as civil rights and foreign policy. The graph shows that teachers split the ideological divide while farmers and athletes are more likely to be conservative.”
The team are keen to highlight the potential that semantic web technology such as Wikidata offers to social scientists.
For the full Q + A with Brian and Joe see the mySociety Medium post.
When you send a Freedom of Information request through WhatDoTheyKnow.com, every part of the exchange is published online. Those who have browsed the site will know that you can read the correspondence around each request from beginning to end, including the initial enquiry, auto-replies, any holding letters, messages seeking clarification, and finally, the response — or refusal.
We built the site so that, when information was released, that information would be available for everyone. The result is the massive online archive, all searchable, that you can find on WhatDoTheyKnow today. That being the case, why do we bother publishing out all the rest of the correspondence? Why not simply publish the end result, that is, the actual information?
Well, we believe there’s value even in what you might consider the ephemera of everything else, not least that it helps demystify the various steps of the FOI process.
This week, an article by ‘FOIMan’ Paul Gibbons showed that the publication of this material can also help with research. He was able to look at 250 ‘refusal notices’ — that is, times when authorities had turned down requests for information — and pull out examples of best and worst practice.
The result will benefit us all, from those requesting information to those who process the requests: for the former, it sets out what to expect from a refusal, and for the latter, it highlights how to ensure that you are sticking to the law as well as ensuring a good experience for the public.
A refusal, as Gibbons points out, does not have to be a shutting of the gates in the face of the requester: it can help educate, point people towards a better means of obtaining the information they need, or even clarify for the FOI officer where withholding the information may in fact be inappropriate. We’re very glad to have seen our data being used in this way.
Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.
Civic Tech: whose job is it?
Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?
We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.
But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.
We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.
A vital new area for research
When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.
Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.
If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.
It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?
Civic Tech Cities
Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.
Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.
The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.
It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.
Better tools make better policy
Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.
The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.
Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.
You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.
Image: Jindong H
Suppose we sent an automated tweet every time someone made a successful Freedom of Information request on WhatDotheyKnow — would it bring more visitors to the site?
And, if you get a response to your first FOI request, does it mean you are more likely to make a second one?
These, and many more, are the kind of questions that emerge as we refine the advice that we’re offering partner organisations.
Our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli underpins Freedom of Information sites all around the world. When we first launched it, our only priorities were to make the code work, and to make that code as easy as possible to implement. But, as a community emerged around Alaveteli, we realised that we’d all be better off if we shared advice, successes and ideas.
And that’s where we began to encounter questions.
Some of them, like how to get more users, or how to understand where users come from, are common to anyone running a website.
Others are unique to our partner structure, in which effectively anyone in any part of the world may pick up the Alaveteli code and start their own site. In theory, we might know very little more than that a site is running, although we’ll always try to make contact and let the implementers know what help we can offer them.
There were so many questions that we soon saw the need to keep them all in one place. At mySociety, we’re accustomed to using Github for anything resembling a to-do list (as well as for its primary purposes; Github was designed to store code, allow multiple people to work on that code, and to suggest or review issues with it), and so we created a slightly unusual repo, Alaveteli-experiments.
This approach also gives us the benefit of transparency. Anyone can visit that repo and see what questions we are asking, how we intend to find the answers, and the results as they come in. What’s more, anyone who has (or opens) a Github account will also be able to add their own comments.
Some of the experiments, like this one to analyse whether people click the ‘similar requests’ links in the sidebar, we’re running on our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow. Others, such as this one about the successful requests listed on every Alaveteli site’s homepage, are being conducted on our partners’ sites.
Our aims are to find out more about how to bring more users to all Alaveteli sites, how to encourage browsing visitors to become people who make requests, and how to turn one-off requesters into people who come back and make another — and then pass all that on to our partners.
We hope you’ll find plenty of interest on there. We reckon it’s all relevant, especially to anyone running an FOI website, but in many cases to anyone wondering how best to improve a site’s effectiveness. And we’re very happy to hear your ideas, too: if we’ve missed some obvious experiment, or you’ve thought of something that would be really interesting to know through the application of this kind of research, you’re welcome to let us know.
Researching in an unstable environment
It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.
The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.
These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.
However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.
The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.
We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.
The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.
We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.
There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.
Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:
“There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”
Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.
We’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.
So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.
In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.
Finally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!
No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.
As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.
Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.
While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.
Videos from TICTeC — our Impacts of Civic Technologies Conference — are now available for viewing.
So, whether you were there and you want to experience it all over again, or you just want to see what you missed out on, settle down and enjoy accounts from some of the most interesting civic tech projects around the world right now.
What is TICTeC?
Here’s mySociety CEO Mark Cridge explaining what TICTeC is, and why we run it:
And if that’s left you hungry for more, make sure you visit our YouTube channel to watch the other TICTeC videos.
You might also enjoy the slides, photos and other media that have all been collected together on the TICTeC 2016 page.
TICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies.
This year, we’ll be in Barcelona, Spain, with a diverse programme of speakers from all over the world.
Guy Grossman, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s political science department, will deliver one of two keynotes. See details of our other keynote speaker, Helen Milner OBE, here.
Guy has had a long history in civic tech research, with a special focus on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are delighted that he will be sharing his insights to our audience of practitioners and researchers.
Hi Guy! Tell us what you’ll be covering in your TICTeC keynote.
The state of academic knowledge about the promises and pitfalls of ICT applications designed to increase voice and accountability in low-income countries. Specifically:
- Under what conditions are citizens more likely to communicate with government officials using mobile-platforms? If we “build them – will they come”?
- Do mobile platforms exacerbate inequalities in political access, privileging groups (men, urban, better-off) that are heavier users of ICTs?
- What can be done to help increase the participation rates of marginalised populations (such as women and the poor)?
Low-income countries have leapfrogged past the landline era and directly into the mobile era. Citizens can now connect with each other and with their public officials in unprecedented ways.
Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited.
The massive penetration of mobile technology, even to remote areas of the least developed countries, has great potential to reshape both the social and political landscapes.
Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited. My goal at TICTeC is to help take stock of what we know and don’t know in this emerging field.
What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?
I’m hoping to interact with practitioners, policy makers, technologists and fellow academics to figure out where the overlap is between practical needs and academic research.
I’m also hoping to get exposed to promising and innovative applications that I am unaware of.
Your civic tech research focuses especially on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa. What led you down this path?
I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries.
I care deeply about poverty and social and gender inequality, so working and studying in Africa has been a natural choice.
How did I get involved with civic tech? In the past decade I have witnessed an increasing number of mobile-based applications designed to enhance such things as agriculture productivity and financial transactions or match between buyers and sellers.
On the other hand, I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries. I came to believe that this was a great void that needed to be filled.
In fact, unfortunately, we are still quite far from saturation in the development of governance-related ICT applications.
What do you think are the big unanswered questions when it comes to civic tech?
Does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?
Here’s a very partial list of some of the answered questions when it comes to civic tech in the global south:
Can simple innovations in mobile technology be used to facilitate new meaningful forms of political participation?
If so, what types of mobile-based political communication are most likely to be adopted by voters?
What is the potential of ICTs to flatten political access to marginalised populations?
What are some of the ways to increase the usage of mobile-based political communication in the face of clear collective action problems?
How can ICT be used to overcome political economy constraints to growth (e.g. by resolving monitoring challenges in government bureaucracies, reducing the cost for citizens of tracking bureaucratic performance, or making it easier to detect corrupt practices in public-sector salary distribution)?
And, does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?
If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?
Adopt a user perspective — make sure that the suggested application/platform addresses a real need that could not be addressed using a low-tech solution.
You won’t want to miss what Guy has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now.