Can you help the international FOI community?
mySociety helps people run Freedom of Information sites in 25 jurisdictions around the world, on our Alaveteli platform.
These partners are usually keeping their sites going with little resource or funding, and we want to upgrade everyone to the newest version of Alaveteli so that they won’t need to manage this substantial task for themselves.
There are improvements and new features in the updates, which is exciting for our partners and their users — but of course, with every new feature come new, small strings of text that help explain it to users, label the buttons, describe any errors that occur, etc, etc.
And although we’re good on coding languages, sadly we can’t say the same about most of the actual spoken languages that need translation. So if you are fluent (ideally as a native speaker or equivalent) in any of the languages listed below, and you would like to do something both interesting and extremely worthwhile, we would be very grateful!
Translation is done via a system called Transifex. Those who are able and keen to contribute to the global Freedom of Information movement should drop us a line on email@example.com with an idea of your availability and commitment, and we can get you set up.
We need translators fluent in:
- French (France and Rwanda versions)
- Spanish (Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua versions)
- German (Germany)
If you speak languages other than these, you can find the full list of languages here and we’re sure any of our partners running sites would be grateful for the translation help — but the above languages are our priorities as these are the sites we help by hosting ourselves.
We’re aiming to get things upgraded as soon as possible, and certainly in time for International Right To Information Day in September, so we’re looking for translators with availability over the coming three months (May, June and July 2019). If this sounds interesting and fun to you please do get in touch.
Image: Yogi Purnama
Almost all the videos on our YouTube channel now have subtitles in English. You can tell which ones do, by the small CC symbol beneath each one:
Watching our videos with subtitles
To switch subtitles on or off, you click the CC sign at the bottom right of every video:
If we’ve already provided subtitles for the video you’re watching, that’s what you’ll see. If you’ve picked one of the few we still haven’t got round to, you get YouTube’s automatically-generated subtitles which — while they do obviously represent great strides in voice recognition technology, compared to how things were only a few years ago — can still be a bit hit and miss.
Subtitles make videos more useful for all sorts of people, from the hearing impaired to those who just want to watch without disturbing others. But of course, English subtitles aren’t necessarily useful for people who speak other languages.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) recently asked whether we’d mind them translating some of our subtitles into Arabic. Mind? We were positively delighted.
It turns out that YouTube has really upped its game on subtitles, making it much easier to add them to our own videos, and providing the means for others to contribute too.
Here’s how to view subtitles in another language:
Click on the ‘settings’ cogwheel at the bottom right of the video:
You’ll see a short menu pop up. Click on ‘subtitles/CC’:
Then select the language you require: in this case, you have the choice between Arabic, our own English subtitles, or, for potential comic value, the auto-generated version.
Incredibly, you can also select ‘auto-translate’, which takes the English transcript and gives you what appears to be a fairly reasonable version (presumably run through Google Translate) in any one of more than 100 different languages.
Here’s how to contribute subtitles in another language
If you think our videos might be useful for organisations, researchers or students, but that they would benefit from being able to read the subtitles in their own language, you are more than welcome to contribute a translation.
Begin by clicking on the three dots next to the word ‘More’, and then selecting ‘transcript’ from the drop-down menu:
This will show you the existing transcript in written form. At the top you’ll see a dropdown menu with options for the transcripts which are already in place, and at the bottom, ‘Add subtitles/CC’:
Again, you’ll be shown a list of the translations that we already have, and invited to search for the language that you wish to add — in this case, let’s say Greek:
Click on the name of the language, and you get this simple translation interface, with a box below each section of the existing transcript for you to type your translation into. And as you type, you’ll see how the subtitles will look on the video.
And that’s it! You’ve benefited everyone who speaks your language… and of course we here at mySociety will also be very grateful.
And yet, it’s among mySociety’s longest-running sites, and one that we had big plans for. It was a truly international project, too, with users in many countries.
It even, as we’ll see, spawned one of the UK’s major transparency organisations.
But all good things come to an end, and as we announced in a recent post, we’ll shortly be closing Pledgebank down.
Before we do, it seems a good moment to record some of its history.
The Pledgebank concept
In November 2004, we announced mySociety’s second official project:
The purpose of PledgeBank is to get people past a barrier which strikes down endless good plans before they can are carried out – the fear of acting alone. It allows anyone to say “I’ll do X if other people also do X”, for example “I’ll write to my councillor if 5 other people on my street do the same”.
However, there is no scale to big or too small, it could equally be used to say “I’ll start recycling if 10,000 other people in Britain also start”.
Pledgebank officially launched on 13 June 2005. We’d opened a trial version of the site to a few users first, with early pledges including anti-ID card campaigning, carbon offsetting, and community river cleaning. People were interested. It was off to a good start. As the Guardian reported, even Brian Eno was a user.
By that September, mySociety Director Tom was describing Pledgebank as our most popular site yet, and as of January 2006, there had been more than 200 successful pledges. In July 2006 the site won the New Statesman New Media award.
Finding a niche for Pledgebank
So that was all going swimmingly, and as time passed, we started building on the basic Pledgebank model.
There were location-specific Pledgebanks, like Pledgebank London which urged folk to do a good deed for their city. Both the then PM Tony Blair and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone helped launch it, pledging to become patrons of a sports club.
Did we miss something?
Here at mySociety, we’re not all about making the big bucks. But that doesn’t stop us from occasionally wondering why we never evolved Pledgebank into a lucrative service like Kickstarter or Groupon, both of which are founded on the very same idea: that there’s potential power in a pledge.
Whether you back a project on Kickstarter, or put in for a hot stone massage on Groupon, you’re basically undertaking to buy something. But while Pledgebank did allow fundraising pledges, it didn’t take a cut of the moneys raised.
At one point we did look into using an escrow service, but we decided in the end that each pledge organiser could sort out collection of any payments. And thus, we never quite became Kickstarter. Oh well.
Simple concepts have many possibilities
Pledgebank might have been founded on a simple concept, but, like so many simple concepts, it turned out that there were endless features we could add to it.
At launch, SMS text messages were an important part of the site, and one that we spent considerable time and effort on. It was 2005, remember, and as we often said in our blog posts at the time, many people either weren’t online or had no desire to be. We wanted the site to cater for them too.
And almost immediately after launch we added another feature: the ability to subscribe, so you’d receive an email when someone set up a pledge that was near you, geographically. This was ideal for those pledges with a local aspect, such as saving an ancient tree, or getting together to clean up a community.
Then there was the international aspect. Pledgebank was mySociety’s first in-house project to be translated.
In true mySociety style, the translation was crowdsourced and ultimately overseen by our diligent volunteer Tim Morley. As I write, just prior to the site’s closure, it is available in 14 languages, from Simplified Chinese to Belarusian, and including Esperanto.
And it was taken up, enthusiastically, in many countries. Even now, we still sometimes have to deploy Google Translate in order to reply to Pledgebank’s user support emails.
A site to change the world
Over its lifetime, Pledgebank has been the starting point for many people to make the world a better place, in ways both large and small.
Before we say goodbye all together, let’s take a look at some of the surprising, sometimes amazing, things it helped bring about.
- In what was probably Pledgebank’s biggest success, over 1,000 people donated to bring about the creation of ‘an organisation that will campaign for digital rights in the UK’: that organisation became the Open Rights Group.
- After the Croydon riots, more than 1,000 people chipped in to rebuild the damaged Reeve’s furniture store.
- Football fans raised over £20,000 for Ebbsfleet United, so that they could buy striker Michael Gash.
- A pledge encouraging bloggers to post about women in technology on Ada Lovelace Day saw almost double the number of pledgers they’d hoped for.
- Australian massage therapists raised the funds to travel to New Orleans and offer therapy to those who needed it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
- People from all over the world donated books and money to build a library in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India.
- 1,000 people pledged to move house and start a Free State community in New Hampshire.
- Hundreds of orphans in Liberia received clean underwear.
- Over £2,000 was given to plant trees in Kenya.
The smaller pledges were sometimes just as interesting:
- A pianist played a free jazz concert at Guy’s Hospital, in return for others pledging to have the hospital’s piano tuned.
- 15 people engaged in earnest conversation with someone whose views they really despised, to try to understand them more.
- As noted in this BBC article on the site launch, several people buried a bucket to create a home for stag beetles.
…and many more. Over time, Pledgebank became an archive of inspirational, utopian, and sometimes plain eccentric pledges. It brought thousands of people together in common causes, and multiplied the power of a single person’s desire to do good.
We’d love to hear how you used Pledgebank: let us know in the comments below.
Alaveteli (the software that runs WhatDoTheyKnow) is capable of being translated into any language, and we’ve finally switched on the ability to use the website in Welsh today. Many apologies for the long wait as this has been on our to-do list for well over 2 years…
As you can see, we don’t yet have a complete Welsh translation, and it’s just a start: we’ve done the help pages, and around 6% of the rest. To take a look at what’s been done, just click the “Cymraeg” link at the top of any page.
We’d love it if you could help us get to 100% by adding translations (or correcting any mistakes we’ve made!) at Transifex. You can read more about working with translations for Alaveteli, here and here, or just get in touch if you need a helping hand getting started or have any further questions.
And finally, a massive thank you & diolch to the translators who have already helped us get this far!
Today sees the official launch of FixMyStreet’s open source codebase as a proper tool that we hope people will want to deploy in cities and countries around the world. It is based on FixMyStreet.com which we believe is the most usable, most mature street problem reporting tool in the world, but which is only available to British users.
We’re shouting about this launch a bit because we need your help to make the service ever better. First, we need feedback from programmers about whether we’ve got the install process right – whether it’s as easy and clear as we want it to be. And for non-coders who want to get involved, we want to ask for help with the process of translating the site’s text into different languages.
Over the years there have been many copies of FixMyStreet set up in many countries, often using the site’s original name, but always written by developers from scratch. We’re delighted to have inspired people, but all too often the people trying to build copies have stumbled as they realise just how hard it is to build a tool like this with the polish that users expect. We think that people everywhere would be better off if they could have a local FixMyStreet that was really usable, and really connected to the right people.
So we’re very happy to be able to open up a codebase that has been extensively modified in the last year, to help users around the world manage easy, successful deployments. Steps we have taken include:
- Putting the translation text into Transifex, so that non-technical translators can get started whenever they feel like it
- Developing Amazon Machine Images so people who want to tinker can get started in the minimum possible time
- Rewriting the entire codebase in order to make it a less confusing installation
- Building a global version of our MapIt political boundaries web service, so you can get going without having to wrestle administrative data out of your government before you get started.
Plus with the help of the wonderful OpenStreetMap, you can get maps without licensing hassles too.
Calling it version 1.0 is our way of saying two things. First, that the tool still has a lot of evolution left to do, and a long way to go before it is as good as we want it to become. But more ambitiously, calling it 1.0 is also our way of saying that it’s no longer just a codebase dumped into Github. It’s a real open source project, which we plan to support, and which we hope will make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people. Check it out.
Heard the song ‘We Built this City (on rock and roll)’ by Starship? No? Not to worry, I am just trying to draw parallels with how mySociety.org is organised and managed. You may not have realised, but a good sized chunk of the work that we do is actually carried out by volunteers, that includes everything from translating a single page to full website development
In other words, volunteers make our organisation tick and thought it about time that we shed some light on who they are and what they do. First out being subject to closer scrutiny is Tim Morley who looks after the everyday running of PledgeBank.com.
Tim has been volunteering for mySociety.org since 2005. Having heard about us through an article in the Guardian, he started out by translating content to Esperanto, and has through the years progressed to his current role.
Being a trained primary school language teacher, Tim estimates that he spends anything from five minutes to 3-4 hours a day on his volunteering work depending on how much there is to do. Task varies from helping users with technical queries to help out organising events.
Challenge was an initial motivating factor in deciding to start volunteering. He could also see the benefit of PledgeBank.com as a tool for the Esperanto speaking community, to help and encourage people to organise happenings in what is a very widely- and thinly-spread group. Three years later what keeps him going are the people involved with mySociety.org, the fact that he’s impressed with other things that we are doing and is proud to be associated with our organisation. Making a contribution and taking PledgeBank.com forward still feels important.
If you are interested in volunteering for mySociety.org don’t hesitate to get in touch. As can be seen above, Tim is a highly involved volunteer. But all contributions to the running of our organisation are appreciated so don’t let him put you off. :-)) Further info on some of our other volunteers is in the pipeline if you are looking for inspiration on how you can help out.
I’m still busy beavering away at the Facebook / PledgeBank integration. It all works now, but will take a bit more polishing to get just right. Matthew is, I think adding surveys to PledgeBank. So it finds out later if people have or have not done their pledge. Or is he updating to a new version of BoundaryLine at the moment, so our postcode lookup on WriteToThem and everywhere else gets better? Hard to keep track when he does so much at once.
Keith is upgrading our internal documentation, so new people at mySociety can learn how to keep things going. Heather is stalking all of America, finding people to use and promote PledgeBank. Tom is on a much deserved holiday, after seemingly a zillion meetings per day for months.
There’s lots of ongoing maintenance for all our sites. We’re lucky that large chunks of our customer support email are done by volunteers (thanks Anna, Louise, Tim and Tomski/James) and by Debbi (yay Debbi!). Much of this is routine – changing pledge text, updating council email addresses, giving MPs posting links for HearFromYourMP, putting new MP photos up on TheyWorkForYou etc. A lot of it is unique – handling new translations, answering questions from MPs and Lords about their voting record. I’ll let the others give some more examples of the kind of thing we answer.
Speaking of which, do you know any good web developers who would like to work for mySociety? If so, put them in touch.
Thank you to the translators – I’ll get Tim (our elite translation manager volunteer) to list their names in the comments.
Do you speak another language? If so, help us translate PledgeBank into it. Or even if there is already an existing translation, we often need people to update the translation for recent changes to the site.
Now they just all need marketing more in every country…
Whereas new sites are lovely, and I talk about Neighbourhood Fix-It improvements further down, there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to go into making sure our current sites are always up-to-date, working, and full of the joys of spring. Here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to recently, whilst everyone else chats about database upgrades, server memory, and statistics.
The elections last week meant much of WriteToThem has had to be switched off until we can add the new election results – that means the following aren’t currently contactable: the Scottish Parliament; the Welsh Assembly; every English metropolitan borough, unitary authority, and district council (bar seven); and every Scottish council. The fact that the electoral geography has changed a lot in Wales means there will almost certainly be complicated shenanigans for us in the near future so that our postcode lookup continues to return the correct results as much as possible.
Talking of postcode lookups, I also noticed yesterday that some Northern Ireland postcodes were returning incorrect results, which was caused by some out of date entries left lying around in our MaPit postcode-to-area database. Soon purged, but that led me to spot that Gerry Adams had been deleted from our database! Odd, I thought, and tracked it down to the fact our internal CSV file of MLAs had lost its header line, and so poor Mr Adams was heroically taking its place. He should be back now.
A Catalan news article about PledgeBank brought a couple of requests for new countries to be added to our list on PledgeBank. We’re sticking to the ISO 3166-1 list of country codes, but the requests led us to spot that Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man had been given full entry status in that list and so needed added to our own. I’m hoping the interest will lead to a Catalan translation of the site; we should hopefully also have Chinese and Belarussian soon, which will be great.
Neighbourhood Fix-It update
New features are still being added to Neighbourhood Fix-It.
Questionnaires are now being sent out to people who create problems four weeks after their problem is sent to the council, asking them to check the status of their problem and thereby keep the site up-to-date. Adding the questionnaire functionality threw up a number of bugs elsewhere – the worst of which was that we would be sending email alerts to people whether their alert had been confirmed or not. Thankfully, there hadn’t yet been any such alert, phew.
Lastly, the Fix-It RSS feeds now have GeoRSS too, which means you can easily plot them on a Google map.