1. Are you one in 6,983,028? Looking at our UK visitor numbers

    How many people visit mySociety’s websites?

    That’s a question we don’t ask ourselves as much as many other organisations. Much of our current funding is dependent on transactions (that is, the number of people using the site to complete an action such as making an FOI request, writing to a politician, or signing up to receive emails when their MP speaks), and rightly so, since that is a better measure of the sites’ actual effectiveness.

    All the same, visitor numbers* do tell us about things like how much public awareness there is of what we do, and which of our sites is more visible than the others, so it’s good to take a proper look now and again.

    Which of our UK sites is most visited?

    By far our most popular site in terms of visitor numbers is our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. With over 4.5 million visitors 2014-15, it’s had three times more users than its closest competitor, TheyWorkForYou.

    As well as allowing users to submit FOI requests, WhatDoTheyKnow also puts the responses into the public domain, so that the information becomes openly available. Every request receives, on average, twenty readers, meaning that transactions do not show the whole picture for this site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow’s user numbers are also rising steadily. It’s up 8% on last year, and March 2015 was its highest month for unique users since its launch in 2008, at 470,509.

    Which is least visited?

    This dubious honour goes to WriteToThem, which nonetheless welcomed 457,209 visitors during the year, either helping them to write to their representatives, or simply showing them who those representatives were.

    This was still a decent 11% rise on the previous year, despite a real rollercoaster where some months dipped substantially from the previous year.

    Which made the most gains in the last year?

    FixMyStreet saw the biggest percentage change, with a 21% rise in visitor numbers compared to the previous year; we talked a bit more about that in a recent blog post. WhatDoTheyKnow had the highest rise in actual visitor numbers: over 360,000 up on 2013-14.

    Which fell by the most in the last year?

    TheyWorkForYou saw a 12% drop in visitor numbers year on year (and also the biggest drop in real terms)—disappointing, but something we hope to rectify with the new voting pages, an ongoing process of rolling redesign, and some grassroots outreach.

    How much effect do external events have on visitor numbers?

    Plenty!

    We already know that, as you’d expect, when Parliament is on holiday, MPs, debates and legislation aren’t in the news, and TheyWorkForYou visitor numbers fall. There’s also a weekly pattern for all our sites, where far fewer people use them at the weekends, presumably indicating that lots of our users access them from work.

    It’s too early to say exactly what effect the election has had on our sites: as I write, people are eagerly checking out the voting records of newly-appointed cabinet ministers on TheyWorkForYou.

    One thing we know for sure is that fewer people will have been using WriteToThem, because there have been no MPs to write to for the last few weeks. We’ve removed the “write to your MP” links from TheyWorkForYou, which always drove a good deal of WriteToThem’s traffic.

    FixMyStreet enjoyed a boost back in June, when it was featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘The Complainers’—and the nice thing is, user numbers never receded back to their previous levels after the programme was over. Maybe people just need to use FixMyStreet to see how useful it is.

    How many people visit mySociety’s UK websites in total?

    This is a difficult figure for us to produce with accuracy, because we don’t trace whether you’re the same person visiting a number of our different sites.

    However, the aggregate total of visitors to all our UK sites (WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow) for 2014-15 is 6,983,028. Thanks very much if you were one of them :)

    How can I help?

    Glad you asked! If you find mySociety sites useful, you can help us spread the word by telling friends, sharing the URLs with any groups you are a member of, posting on Facebook or Twitter, or writing to your local paper.

    We have a number of materials for FixMyStreet which can be found here; we hope to create similar materials for our other sites too, and we’ll make sure we announce it on here when we do.

    * Note: all references to ‘users’ refer to unique users within the period discussed. So, users in a year means individual people who may have visited any number of times over that year, but are only counted once; same with monthly users.

    Image: Rodrigo Moraes (CC)

  2. Another private data leak, this time by Hackney Council

    News has just hit the press of a leak of a significant amount of private data by Hackney Council in a Freedom of Information response to our WhatDoTheyKnow website.

    This is a problem we have been warning about for some time. Islington Council were fined £70,000 for a similar incident in 2012. In light of this fresh incident we again urge all public authorities to take care when preparing data for release.

    Note: we understand all affected residents should have received a letter from Hackney Council. If you have any concerns please contact them or the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    As with the Islington incident, the information was in parts of an Excel spreadsheet that were not immediately visible. It was automatically published on 14th November when Hackney Council sent it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the normal operation of the WhatDoTheyKnow website. All requests sent via the website make it clear that this will happen.

    This particular breach involved a new kind of hidden information we hadn’t seen before – the released spreadsheet had previously been linked to another spreadsheet containing the private information, and the private information had been cached in the “Named Range” data in the released spreadsheet.

    Although it was not straightforward to access the information directly using Excel, it was directly visible using other Windows programs such as Notepad. It had also been indexed by Google and some of it was displayed in their search previews.

    The breach was first hit upon by one of the data subjects searching for their own name. When they contacted us on 25th November to ask about this, one of our volunteers, Richard, realised what had happened. He immediately hid the information from public view and notified the council.

    We did not receive any substantive response from the council and therefore contacted them again on 3rd December. The council had investigated the original report but not understood the problem, and were in fact preparing to send a new copy of the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow site, which would have caused the breach to be repeated.

    We reiterated what we had found and advised them to consult with IT experts within their organisation. The next day, 4th December, we sent them a further notification of what had happened, copying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As far as we are aware, this was the first time the ICO was informed of the breach.

    From our point of view it is very disappointing that these incidents are still happening. Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow are a small fraction of all requests, so it is very likely that this kind of error happens many more times in private responses to requesters, without the public authority ever becoming aware.

    Our earlier blog post has several tips for avoiding this problem. These tips include using CSV format to release spreadsheets, and checking that file sizes are consistent with the intended release. Either of these approaches would have averted this particular breach.

    We would also urge the ICO to do as much as possible to educate authorities about this issue.

  3. Why the FixMyStreet homepage asks one easy question

    Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.

    FixMyStreet home page location box screenshot

     

    The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.

    We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.

    How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.

    So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map. You see other problems, already reported so maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there and we won’t have wasted any of your time making you tell us about it. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.

    And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.

    Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern e-commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.

    This post was written by mySociety developer Dave Whiteland, and first published on our DIY mySociety blog.

  4. mySociety hack nights: meet people, eat pizza, change the world

    Winnie Bagoes pizza by Nathanael Boehm

    EDITED TO ADD: Wow, we have reached capacity on this event for the 17th. If you’d like to come, please drop us a line at the address below, and we’ll let you know if a space becomes available. Alternatively, ask to be added to the list for the next week.

    NB, If you have claimed a space, please let us know if you won’t make it, so we can offer your space to someone else.

    Hey you! Yeah, you, the cool one, hacking on civic and democratic tech. Or thinking about it, at least.

    How about dropping in to a mySociety hack night, hosted by the Open Data Institute? It’s a great space, and there’ll be food, drink, and friendly people to talk through your ideas with and actually get those projects on the go.

    No agenda and no talks; it’s just a chance to spend some time showing what you’re working on, swapping ideas and getting advice from other people interested in the fields of civic technology and open data.

    Where? At the Open Data Institute, 65, Clifton Street, London EC2A 4JE. We’re on the third floor. Map

    When? Weekly from Wednesday 17th July, 6:00 – 9:00 pm

    Who? Anyone with a bit of technical knowledge. We’ll be there to chat things through and maybe help with sticky problems.

    Why? Get going on that website or tool you’ve always wanted to build; meet people who are interested in the same stuff as you; oh and did we mention the food?

    If that all sounds good, drop us a line on hello@mysociety.org to let us know you’re coming to be added to the wait list.

    Photo by Nathanael Boehm (CC)

  5. An award for the Great British Property Scandal

    Broadcast Digital Awards

    You may remember our recent post announcing that we’d been nominated for an Emmy and a BAFTA award. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, you might have thought.

    But no! For, last night, The Great British Property Scandal picked up a Broadcast Digital Award for Best Multiplatform Project.

    As you’ll recall, we created the app and the website tools for the Channel 4 programme alongside production companies Tiger Aspect and the Project Factory, who share the accolade.

    So: yays all round – and don’t forget, our award-winning skills are for hire.

  6. A smooth ride for FixMyStreet Oxfordshire

    Oxford April by Tejvan Pettinger

    We were really pleased by this report on BBC Oxfordshire this morning.

    Oxfordshire County Council is one of the local authorities who have integrated FixMyStreet into their own website. We’re delighted to see what a success it’s been for them: over 15,000 potholes fixed since its installation in March.

    We can’t take any credit for the actual repairs, of course, but we like to think that FixMyStreet’s easy interface has simplified the reporting process for the people of Oxfordshire. Read more about FixMyStreet  For Councils here.

     

    Photo by Tejvan Pettinger (CC)

  7. Transparency in policing – WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer talks to ACPO

    Police by Aaron van Dorn

    Many mySociety projects rely on a team of volunteers to keep them going. FixMyTransport, WhatDoTheyKnow and Pledgebank may look like very simple sites that run themselves, but the truth is that there’s a lot of human intervention going on behind the scenes, keeping the wheels oiled.

    Our volunteer teams deal with masses of site admin, they discuss policies and future development, and they give advice to our users. They may also go and talk about our projects in the wider community, and this is what WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer, Richard Taylor, did recently when he addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers at the “Transparency in UK Policing” event.

    Richard has written about his experience here; I am linking to it because, as well as giving a good introduction to WhatDoTheyKnow within a policing context, it also explains exactly what sort of work the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers do routinely, and the kind of issues that are discussed within the team. It might just make you value our volunteers more, or it might pique your interest in becoming one yourself.

    If that latter applies, you can find out more about volunteering for WhatDoTheyKnow here, or about the ways you can help across all mySociety projects here. But either way, I encourage you to go and read Richard’s post.

    Photo by Aaron van Dorn (CC)

  8. WhatDoTheyKnow Team Urge Caution When Using Excel to Depersonalise Data

    WhatDoTheyKnow logomySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is used to make around 15 to 20% of FOI requests to central government departments and in total over 160,000 FOI requests have been made via the site.

    Occasionally, in a very small fraction of cases, public bodies accidentally release information in response to a FOI request which they intended to withhold. This has been happening for some time and there have been various ways in which public bodies have made errors. We have recently, though, come across a type of mistake public bodies have been making which we find particularly concerning as it has been leading to large accidental releases of personal information.

    What we believe happens is that when officers within public bodies attempt to prepare information for release using Microsoft Excel, they import personally identifiable information and an attempt is made to summarise it in anonymous form, often using pivot tables or charts.

    What those working in public bodies have been failing to appreciate is that while they may have hidden the original source data from their view, once they have produced a summary it is often still present in the Excel workbook and can easily be accessed. When pivot tables are used, a cached copy of the data will remain, even when the source data appears to have been deleted from the workbook.

    When we say the information can easily be accessed, we don’t mean by a computing genius but that it can be accessed by a regular user of Excel.

    We have seen a variety of public bodies, including councils, the police, and parts of the NHS, accidentally release personal information in this way. While the problem is clearly the responsibility of the public bodies, it does concern us because some of the material ends up on our website (it often ends up on public bodies’ own FOI disclosure logs too).

    We strive to run the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website in a responsible manner and promptly take down inappropriately released personal information from our website when our attention is drawn to it. There’s a button on every request thread for reporting it to the site’s administrators.

    As well as publishing this blog post in an effort to alert public bodies to the problem, and encourage them to tighten up their procedures, we’ve previously drawn attention to the issue of data in “hidden” tabs on Excel spreadsheets in our statement following an accidental release by Islington council; one of our volunteers has raised the issue at a training event for police FOI officers, and we’ve also been in direct contact with the Information Commissioner’s office both in relation to specific cases, and trying to help them understand the extent of the problem more generally.

    Advice

    Some of our suggestions:

    • Don’t release Excel pivot tables created from spreadsheets containing personal information, as the source data is likely to be still present in the Excel file.
    • Ensure those within an organisation who are responsible for anonymising data for release have the technical competence to fulfil their roles.
    • Check the file sizes. If a file is a lot bigger than it ought to be, it could be that there are thousands of rows of data still present in it that you don’t want to release.
    • Consider preparing information in a plain text format, eg. CSV, so you can review the contents of the file before release.
  9. mySociety – BAFTA and Emmy nominations

    empty homes spotter

    We won’t insist on being addressed this way, but you can now append ‘BAFTA and Emmy nominated’ to our name. We were very chuffed to be nominated for two television awards in the last month: the BAFTA for Digital Creativity in Television Craft, and the Emmy for best Digital Non-fiction Programme.

    ‘TV?’, you might be thinking, ‘I thought mySociety were all about digital stuff.’ Well, increasingly, of course, the lines are blurred. Television programmes come bundled with their own website, Twitter hashtag, or app. These days, TV is less about being a passive viewer, more about becoming part of an active, engaged conversation online.

    Last year, we worked with Channel 4 and TV production company Tiger Aspect to create the app and the website tools that accompanied their programme about empty houses – The Great British Property Scandal. A repurposing of the software that underlies FixMyStreet, the app enabled viewers to report empty homes; the site petition amassed 119k signatures – so the audience certainly got involved.

    We were, of course, delighted to have been recognised, along with C4 and Tiger Aspect. In the end, we didn’t need the space we’d hastily cleared on the mySociety mantelpiece, but as the BAFTA went to the incomparable Paralympics, we really can’t begrudge it.

    And of course, if you’re a TV company looking for help with your digital tie-ins, we’re happy to help.

  10. What should we do about the naming deficit/surplus?

    I don’t think it is too controversial to make the following – rather boring – assertions: Greenpeace is part of the environmental movement. Oxfam is an international development charity. Human Rights Watch is part of the human rights movement. Obama for America is a political campaign. Facebook dominates the social networking sector. I hope none of these simple, descriptive statements has caused you to turn purple with semantic rage.

    But what primary movement or sector is mySociety part of? Or Avaaz? Or Kiva? Or Wikileaks? When I ask myself these questions, no obvious words or names race quickly or clearly to mind. There is a gap – or at best quite a bit of fuzziness – where the labels should go.

    This lack of good labels should surprise us because these groups definitely have aims and goals, normally explicit. Also, it is unusual because social and political movements tend to be quite good at developing names and sticking to them. If you were given a time machine you could tell a Victorian that you were ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘anti-slavery’ and the locals would have no trouble understanding you. Terms like ‘gender equality’, ‘small government’, ‘cancer research’, ‘anti-smoking’, even ‘anti-capitalist’, can comfortably be used by news media companies without fear of baffling the audience. The public can also easily understand terms that referred to methods of achieving change, rather than goals, terms like ‘political TV advertising’, ‘protests’, ‘petitions‘ and ‘telethons’.

    But now let’s look at some of the common terms that are used to talk about the (very) wide field of digital social change projects. These include ‘digital transparency’, ‘hacktivism’, ‘peer production’, ‘edemocracy’, ‘clicktivism‘ and ‘open data’. But if you tried to slip one into a newspaper headline, the terms would definitely fall beneath the sub-editor’s axe before they could make it to print. They are too niche, and too likely to confuse readers.

    The first thing to note about most of these terms is the way that they refer to methods, rather than goals of social change. But this isn’t completely unprecedented, and isn’t a reason to dismiss these terms out of hand. The name ‘Chartists‘ does indeed refer to people who used the publication of a charter as a political tool, but the name signified a huge bundle of values, methods and goals which went way beyond the deployment of that document.

    Nevertheless, to me it still just doesn’t feel like the broad, loosely coupled fields of human endeavour which stretch from Anonymous to JustGiving  have decent labels yet – especially not labels that signify the ways in which two things can be both similar and different (e.g. ‘rail station’ and ‘bus station’). And this worries me because consistent names help causes to persist over time. If the field of AIDS research had been renamed every 6 months, could it have lasted as it did? Flighty, narrowly used language confuses supporters, prevents focus and is generally the enemy of long term success.

    So, why does this dearth of decent sector labels exist, and can we do anything about it? The short version is, I don’t know. But I do know that the easy answer, ‘It’s all too new to have names’ cannot be right any more, not now that millions have signed petitions, joined Avaaz, donated to Obama online and so on.

    I don’t know why the category terms in these sectors are so weak and changeable, but I am posting today because I would love to hear the thoughts of other people who might have some ideas as to the causes, and possible solutions. Here are some theories about the lack of good labels, off the top of my head:

    1. I think some of the terms currently in circulation were coined in anticipation of the development of possible projects, not after retrospectively reviewing them. So the category terms sometimes seem to define what a field might look like, rather than what it ends up looking like (think ‘edemocracy‘, from a decade ago). This means the terms often feel like they don’t describe real projects very well.

    2. In the traditional (for-profit) internet industry a certain amount of money can be made from coining or becoming associated with new terms (think of IBM and ‘smarter cities’). Because there is a profit motive, there may be a structural incentive to rapidly create new terms which displace older ones which haven’t been widely adopted yet. There are probably similar incentives in some academic fields too – career rewards for coining a key term.

    3. Terms in these fields we work in are usually minted one at a time – ‘only children’ as opposed to born as whole families of interconnected terms. This is unlike the sciences which, since Linnaeus came up with his elegant way of naming living things, have been good at developing naming systems, not just one-off names. Organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry are related, but different in important ways – the names helpfully show that.  To explain how 38 Degrees and mySociety are similar in some ways but different in other very significant ways needs a way of naming things that can signal both commonality and difference.

    4. The knowledge-sharing disconnect between the academic and activist/practitioner communities is really, truly terrible, everywhere except data-driven voter-targeting. People who run services or campaigns normally never hear about what the brightest academics are saying about their own work. And if they do try to pay attention to the ideas coming out of academia then the signal to noise ratio is too bad and the filters are too few and too busy having day jobs.

    5. And, of course, I should namecheck the sceptic’s probable theory: this would argue that good, clear terms don’t exist because all these widely differing organisations are nothing more than meaningless feel-good bunk, so language slides off them like an egg off Teflon. I don’t subscribe to this theory, of course, but it’s worth noting because I’m sure some people would provide this answer to my question.

    I am planning to write a follow-up blog post to this containing some suggested terms we might use to reflect what the many digital projects out there have in common, and how they are different.

    But before I do, I would like to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is a real problem at all, and if so why that might be, and what we might do about it. Who knows, maybe someone will even write a blog post about it, like we’re back in 2003 or something…