One of the common elements you will find across mySociety’s sites is that they have features designed to reduce duplicate messages or reports being sent to politicians, governments or companies. We often do this in quite a subtle way, so it is worth spelling out here how we do this across several sites:
- If you start to report a broken street light or pothole on FixMyStreet, you’ll see local problems before you start to type in your own details. This means if the problem is already there, you can see before you waste any effort.
- If you use WhatDoTheyKnow to send a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we provide a facility which encourages users to search through other people’s requests before they type their new request in.
- If the 08:10 train you take to work is always late, when you go to report it on FixMyTransport, we show you all the other problems already reported on that route. If someone else has already set up a page, you can press the big green ’join’ button, and show your support.
- If more than a handful of people try to use WriteToThem to send an exact duplicate of the same message to a politician, it will prevent it. This is because we know that politicians listen much, much more to individual messages from constituents than bulk mails.
This pattern – trying to intervene before people write identical messages or reports – is a design decision that makes a big difference to the way these sites operate. As usual with mySociety sites, this little feature seems like the sort of thing that would be quite tempting to skip when building a copy. But it really matters to the long term success of the sites. There are three reasons why.
First, there is a simple public benefit that comes from saving time. There’s no point us wasting your time if a report or request has already been sent, especially around minor issues. Saving your users time makes them happier and more likely to enjoy their experience.
Second, if you can spot that someone is about to send a duplicate message, we may be able to encourage that user to support the existing report instead of making a new one. For example, on FixMyStreet you can add an update to an existing pothole report (“it’s getting worse!”).
This feature is most visible, and most mature, on FixMyTransport, where users are clearly encouraged to ‘support’ pre-existing reports, rather than making new copies. By discouraging duplicate reports, we let people with a shared problem work together, even if this only means adding themselves as a “supporter” and doing nothing else. We know that many people search for, and find, problem reports which have turned into these little campaigns, which they then join and help. So even if they are only reading them (not joining them) that exposure can have some value to the people affected. This would be diluted if we created lots of similar reports about the same problem.
Third, we discourage duplicates for the benefit of the governments and companies receiving messages. We don’t think FixMyStreet is effective because it lets people moan: we think it’s effective because it helps local government to be effective by giving them good quality reports about local problems, in formats that area easy to handle. This good quality reporting increases the chance that the government will understand the problem and act on it, which leads to our main goal – citizen empowerment. Recipients are unlikely to help users if many of the messages they get are confused, inaccurate or duplicates, so we work on all these fronts.
So if you haven’t thought about this before, notice how the “work flow” through our sites makes you see similar problems before you’ve finished reporting your own. This is the implicit way to prevent duplication. We don’t have “Stop! Warning! Check this is a new problem!” messages, because we never want to discourage genuine users. But the careful design of the interface gently discourages, successfully, duplicate reports, and encourages supporting of other items.
It’s never possible to entirely prevent duplication. But we try hard, because it’s always better to join people together around common causes, than it is to let them struggle alone.
Romina Colman was one of the delegates at the Alaveteli conference. As well as making videos, tweeting at a good pace, and talking to everyone, Romina took the time to write up her experiences for Argentina’s national newspaper, La Nacion.
If Spanish is not your language, you can now read the English versions on the Alaveteli blog.
Just to finish off this collection of video clips from the Alaveteli conference, here are a couple featuring mySociety people. They were shot by Romina Colman.
First, mySociety Director Tom Steinberg, talking about what he hopes will happen as a result of the conference.
And below is Seb Bacon, Lead Developer of the Alaveteli Platform, explaining how the project began:
Phew! Do you feel like you were there yet? If you’ve been inspired by the examples and advice from transparency hackers and activists around the world, you may be thinking about building your own Alaveteli site. Why not join our mailing list and introduce yourself? After all, if you’ve watched these videos, you’ll already be familiar with many of the people on the list!
Romina Colman is, in her own words, a Freedom of Information activist from Buenos Aires. She did a great job of recording events at AlaveteliCon, what with blogging for Argentina’s national newspaper La Nacion, copious tweeting, and videos.
Here, Romina speaks to Andrea Menapace from Italy, co-founder of Diritto di Sapere.
In this short clip (1:15), Andrea explains the current situation with Freedom of Information in Italy, and what his nascent organisation hopes to achieve.
Together with Guido Romeo (science editor at Wired Italy) I am the founder of Diritto di Sapere, a brand new organisation working on the Right to Information and Transparency in Italy. I am a lawyer by training and I have been working as a researcher and project manager in human rights and humanitarian organizations. I am currently working as a consultant for international NGOs on digital media and civil society capacity building projects.
DIY mySociety is all about making our code – and our experience – available to people who want to build similar websites in their own countries. We thought it would be helpful to list some examples of sites already using mySociety code, so you can see the variety of different possible outcomes.
It might seem like a simple task, but identifying sites in this way isn’t as straightforward as you might think – we don’t always know when people pick up our open source code! If we’ve missed any, please do comment below and we’ll add them.
There are also many sites around the world which were directly, or indirectly, “inspired by” ours. In these cases, the site’s owners have written their own code from scratch. That’s a subject – and a list – for another post. For now, here are all the international sites using mySociety’s code that we know about.
Alaveteli: our Right-to-Know Platform
WhatDoTheyKnow.com – our original Freedom of Information site
FYI.org.nz – New Zealand Freedom of Information site
Pravodaznam – Bosnia and Herzegovina Freedom of Information site
Queremossaber.br – Brazil Freedom of Information site
Informatazyrtare.org – Albania Freedom of Information site
Tuderechoasaber.es – Spain Freedom of Information site
AskTheEU – Europe Freedom of Information site
FixMyStreet: our fault-reporting Platform
FixMyStreet.com – our original fault-reporting site
Fiksgatami – Norway FixMyStreet
FixOurCity – Chennai FixMyStreet
FixMyStreet.br – Brazil FixMyStreet, based on both our code and FixMyStreet.ca from Canada
Parliamentary monitoring and access to elected representatives
TheyWorkForYou – our original parliamentary monitoring site
WriteToThem – our original ‘contact your representative’ site
Mzalendo – Kenya parliamentary monitoring site
Open Australia – Australia parliamentary monitoring site
Kildare Street – Ireland parliamentary monitoring site
Parlamany – Egypt parliamentary monitoring site
Mejlis – Tunisia parliamentary monitoring site
Find out more about the Components behind these sites, PopIt and MapIt, on the Components mailing list.
A community of people, waiting to help
Inspired by the examples above? If you’re thinking of going ahead and building your own site, we’re here to support you with our easy-to-understand guidebooks and our friendly mailing lists (see links to the right). In our online communities you’ll find many of the people who built the sites listed here. There’s no-one better to ask questions, because they’ve been through the process themselves, from early conception right up to completion.
If you are one of those people who has been through the whole process of building, launching and running a site like these (with or without our codebase), and lived to tell the tale, please shout in the comments below. And especially if you’re open to people approaching with questions. Perhaps add a note to say where you prefer to have those conversations – whether that’s via your favourite mailing lists, Twitter, email or simply in the comments to this post.
One last thought – it’s interesting to see that our code can be used for areas as small as a single city (FixMyStreet Chennai) or as large as a confederation of states (AskTheEU.org). In short, it’s scalable! How will you use it?
Image by Windell Oskay, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
Two good reasons to use Alaveteli: it’s flexible, and there’s a supportive, worldwide community. So says Danko Nikolic from Serbia in this half-minute clip.
Danko is one of the founders of the Zajecar Initiative (ZI). ZI has grown into a leading civil society organization working outside the capital of Belgrade. On behalf of ZI, he has developed, co-managed and managed projects funded by various donors, such as National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USA Embassy Democracy Commission, USAID, Fund for an Open Society and others.
Zajecar Initiative is now working on the Serbian version of WriteToThem, aiming to enable the citizens of Serbia to communicate with their local representatives and MPs.
This is Daniela B. Silva from Transparência Hacker in Brazil. In this short clip, Daniela speaks about launching Queremossaber, a Freedom of Information website, into a country where the Right to Know is not yet an embedded part of civic life:
We know that these things are not going to come from Government so easily… you have to create a culture that’s not so based on secrecy; more based on dialogue.”
Transparência Hacker is an autonomous and decentralised community of more than 800 hackers and activists for transparency and openness in Brazil. Queremos Saber is the first Brazilian platform for access to information requests. Transparência Hacker also run the Ônibus Hacker, a bus to spread DIY culture in Brazilian localities – as well as many other projects.
Here’s David Cabo from Tuderechoasaber.es. In another minute-long chat, he explains the environment in Spain, into which the Alaveteli-powered site launched.
“No-one has done it before, so no-one knows how to start.”
David in his own words:
I’m vice-president of Pro Bono Publico – a Spanish association organizing the biggest Open Data hackathon in the country, AbreDatos – and creator of dondevanmisimpuestos.es, a web site for visualizing the annual budgets from Spanish public administrations, developed in collaboration with the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN). I worked with mySociety and Access Info Europe in the development of the EU access to information site, AsktheEU.org. I launched the transparency initiative #adoptaundiputado (Adopt an MP) to crowdsource the parsing of Spanish parliamentarians’ financial disclosure reports, and have collaborated with investigative journalists in the extraction and analysis of public records (Looting the Seas, ICIJ). I’m currently working on tuderechoasaber.es, an access to information site for Spain based on the Alaveteli software and funded by more than 150 small donors using the crowdfunding platform Goteo.
During the Alaveteli conference, mySociety’s Director Tom had a quick chat with some of the delegates. And quick means quick! This one lasts just 61 seconds.
It’s Josef Pospisil from the Czech Republic, explaining why Alaveteli was the platform of choice for his forthcoming FOI (Freedom of Information) site, www.infoprovsechny.cz.
Here’s Josef in his own words:
I am a Czech developer based in the North Bohemian city of Liberec. I was the first Rubyist in the Czech Republic, even before Rails was released. I answered the call of duty last december when the Czech FOI community was searching for a Ruby on Rails expert. From that time I am working on getting the Czech version of WDTK going.
This is a cross-post from the Alaveteli blog. It was written by Seb Bacon, who organised the recent Alaveteli conference, bringing together people from many different countries to discuss building and running Access to Information websites on the Alaveteli Platform.
Alavetelicon 2012 has finished, the tweeting has subsided, and I think I’ve just about finished digesting the enormous conference dinner. It was a lot of fun, with a host of dedicated FOI activists and hackers who could only make it thanks to the generous funding provided by Open Society Foundation and Hivos.
The schedule was split into streams, and had lots of non-programmed time, so I only actually saw a small part of it. There are write-ups in various languages from other participants; here are some personal observations.
Building a movement
The main goal of the conference was to strengthen and build the community. At the time of the conference there were 7 installations of Alaveteli worldwide, but only a small amount interaction between these groups. So far, I’ve been the only person with a clear incentive to make sure people collaborate (I’m funded to do it!) This clearly isn’t sustainable; more people need to talk directly to each other. There’s no better way of building trust and understading that meeting face-to-face.
This certainly worked well for me. Of course, I had conversations with people about Freedom of Information and database architectures, but more importantly, I now know who has a new baby daughter, who is thinking about living in a co-housing project, and who loves British 80s electronic sensation Depeche Mode. I was really struck by what a friendly group of people this was.
Richard Hunt, who’s leading a project to launch an Alaveteli site in the Czech Republic, had some encouraging things to say about community. In his eloquent (and very quotable) presentation, he explained his journey towards using Alaveteli. At first, he wasn’t sure about using the software. He’d talked with developers who had looked at the code, and had felt it might be better to start from scratch. So Richard contacted developers who had already deployed Alaveteli sites directly, and got lots of very useful, friendly, and encouraging responses. His conclusion was that Alaveteli isn’t just a technical platform; “it is also about people — their dreams and ambitions of impeccable merit”.
For so long it was just a dream and idle talk on our side. Now we are nearly there, and we are part of a BIG movement. Feels great, doesn’t it?
This is encouraging, but the conversations started at the conference must continue if they are to bear fruit in the form of more international collaboration. Please join the new Alaveteli Users mailing list, and share ideas or ask questions there!
The future of Alaveteli
There was a lot of discussion of which new features should be added to Alaveteli next, some of which I’ve listed on the alaveteli-dev Google group. However, three general themes particularly struck a cord with me:
1. More collaboration, less confrontation
In the UK, we have been accused of encouraging a confrontational, points-scoring approach to FOI. At the conference, there were stories of how FOI actually frees people within a bureaucracy to speak directly to the requester — without having to go via a press office. We heard of various cases where ministries actively wanted to take part in Alaveteli pilots. In the UK, we have found that FOI officers take their jobs very seriously, and do want to work with the Alaveteli concept; yet they feel that sometimes it makes things unnecessarily hard for them.
I’m not sure what conclusion to take from this, exactly. It remains the case that Alaveteli must be able to deal with obstinate authorities that don’t want to play the game, and it is a prime virtue of the system that it remains well outside the bureaucracies that it aims to hold to account. However, I’m left with a sense that we should examine how we can continue to do this while providing more support to our allies within the System.
2. Cake and fireworks
Lots of people at the conference asked for more statistics to be made available on Alaveteli sites. mySociety has always been a little reluctant to release statistics, because they are so easy to spin or misinterpret. However, delegates repeatedly referred to their power for campaigning. The psychological impact of a big red cross next to your organisation’s name, which you can remedy through positive action, is a powerful motivator. One idea that was mooted was to award a real-life prize (a.k.a. Cake and Fireworks) to the “top” authorities in various categories each year. I think this is a great idea.
3. Black Box APIs
Acesso Inteligente is an FOI website in Chile that doesn’t use Alaveteli. In Chile, all FOI requests must be made via various different web forms. Accesso Inteligente is a tremendous technical achievement which automatically posts requests to the correct organisation’s form, and “screen scrapes” the results, giving Chilean citizens a uniform interface to make all FOI requests.
The team behind the website would love to use Alaveteli as their front end system. The concept they’ve come up with is deceptively simple: repackage their form-posting-and-scraping functionality as a “black box” which acts as if it’s an authority that accepts FOI requests by emails, and sends the answers by email. They can then install Alaveteli without any modifications, and configure it to send FOI requests to the relevant “black box” email addresses.
I love this concept for its simplicity, and I think it can easily be extended to support other use cases. For example, there’s a lot of talk of an Alaveteli system that supports paper requests and responses. This might best be implemented as a “black box” that receives and sends email, with an implementation that helps a human operator with printing and scanning tasks in the back office.