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!
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.
We’ve already put a lot of work into making the code base for the FixMyStreet platform generic and country-neutral, but we’d like to make the process of setting up such a site easier than it is at present.
The first step in this project is going to be contacting as many people across the world as we can who have thought about trying to set up their own version of FixMyStreet, or who’ve actually tried.
We’ll be talking to people ranging from those who have active, running sites, to those who never got past the stage of thinking it might be a nice idea. We want to find out what things presented particular difficulties, and which of the next steps we’re considering would make the greatest difference to international adoption of FixMyStreet.
Some of the things we’re interested in, for example, include:
- Would you be interested in a hosted version of FixMyStreet, or do you prefer to set up a version locally?
- How difficult did you find the process of finding administrative boundaries for your country? Are the boundaries in OpenStreetMap good enough for your use? As a last resort, would you want to draw the boundaries manually?
- Would you be interested in an automated setup procedure which deploys a new server for your locality and then just requires web-based setup?
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.
A Right-to-Know site for Spain
Tuderechoasaber.es is Spain’s brand new Right-to-Know site, built on Alaveteli. The project is managed by David Cabo and Victoria Anderica, and it launches against a fascinating political background.
When the project was started, Spain was one of four EU countries with no Freedom of Information law. The subject was, however, on the political agenda – FOI had been promised, but not delivered, by the previous government in both 2004 and 2008. On election in December 2011, the new conservative ruling party again pledged to introduce Freedom of Information, within their first 100 days in office.
Anderica works at the organisation Access Info Europe, which had been campaigning, with the support of NGOs including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, for a Freedom of Information law. Cabo is one of the founders of Civio, a new organisation hoping to emulate the work of mySociety or the Sunlight Foundation, in Spain. The combination of Access Info and Civio’s knowledge – legal and technical – meant that Tuderechoasaber.es could become a reality.
There was such public thirst for these withheld rights that Cabo and Anderica were able to fund their website through crowdsourced donations. They raised €6,000 and the site was built.
Tuderechoasaber (“Your Right to Know”) launched on the 22nd of March 2012, just a day before the Government opened a public consultation on Freedom of Information (just inside that 100-day deadline). Their promise has now been fulfilled and Spain finally has its Right-to-Know law.
Meanwhile, Tuderechoasaber welcomed more than 11,000 visitors during the first two days it was live. 180 requests were sent – never mind that they slightly preceded the Freedom of Information law actually coming into existence.
Practicalities of launching a Right to Know site
Launching a site like Tuderechoasaber might seem an impressive task, and undoubtedly, much work has gone into it – and will continue to do so.
But it may be more achievable than you think. We asked David a few questions, and here are his thoughts on the matter:
How long did the Alaveteli installation/site build take?
It didn’t take long at all. I was familiar with Alaveteli, as I had developed AsktheEU.org already, so the whole technical work was done over a couple of weeks by myself, while campaigning and coordinating other stuff.
Setting up the server took a couple of days max, and I spent a few more days redesigning the front page and a few other things: we want/need to give the site a more dynamic look, including regular news and encouraging people to support other users’ requests. Most people in Spain don’t know what FOI is or how it’s used, and that includes the public servants, so we need to be more aggressive to get responses.
How simple or otherwise did you find it? What were the major hurdles (from a development point of view) that you had to overcome?
Easy. Development-wise there were no big issues; we’ve uncovered a few caching bugs, but that’s about it.
Adding the blog posts and pictures on the frontpage is a bit of a hack right now, but no big deal. 90% of our time has been talking to media and public bodies, before and after the crowdfunding. Oh, and coordinating the translations and volunteers.
How much time is the day-to-day running of the site taking at the moment, and how much time do you anticipate spending, after the initial publicity dies down?
Too early to know how it will look once it’s settled. It’s a week now since launch, and although the media focus has moved a bit away from FOI (there was a general strike today about job market reform) we’re now getting 2K users a day. So far we have 270 requests, which is way more than we expected.
There’re 8000 city councils in Spain, plus the regional and national bodies, so the day-to-day work now – which is taking two people a few hours a day – is finding more contact details. We expect to have a couple of part-time volunteers handling support, and two part-time journalists writing about what happens on the site.
Could anyone take the plunge and run a site like this, or are there certain qualities you think it’s necessary to have?
Legal understanding of the FOI situation in their country seems essential to me. We couldn’t have built this without Access Info. Apart from that, I don’t think the technical or operations requirements are too complex. Of course, being active in civil society and/or having a community of interested users definitely helps to get the site moving.
Would you mind being contacted by others considering building an Alaveteli site?
Sure, that’s fine, happy to talk about it by email or Twitter. [If you’d like to take David up on this generous offer, find him in the first instance on Twitter at @dcabo.]
What is Alaveteli?
Alaveteli websites work like this:
- Users can contact public authorities with requests for information.
- The sites publish those requests, and the resulting responses.
- Or if there is no response, they make that fact known.
No right to Freedom of Information? Launch anyway
The right to Freedom of Information varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: in many countries it is enshrined by law. In others, there is no such law.
In both scenarios, we encourage people to set up Alaveteli sites.
Why? Because one of the core tenets of running an Alaveteli site is that we believe it should reflect how the law should work, not how it does.
As an example, our site WhatDoTheyKnow.com allows users to contact several bodies which are not actually subject to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act – and many of them do reply to requests made through the site.
Additionally, when we launched the site, there was no prior example of putting responses to Freedom of Information requests into the public domain. Because we believe in the benefits of transparency, we went ahead and did so anyway.
WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in the context of the UK having a Freedom of Information law, but there is nothing to stop you from launching a site even where such a law does not exist.
Find out more about Tuderechoasaber
- Visit the site itself
- El Pais article in the original Spanish or translated into English
- El Mundo article in the original Spanish or translated into English
Find out more about Alaveteli
At mySociety, we’re working really hard to create software tools that are attractive and easy to set up in diverse countries, cities and regions. Now we want to make sure everyone knows what we offer, and how it can be useful. This is a beginners’ guide to what mySociety can offer in the way of software tools.
First up, the basics:
- All our code is open source.
- Some of our code is available in simple-to-use packages.
- There are two types of package. We call them Platforms and Components. This post is about explaining the difference.
You can think of Platforms as flat-pack websites – like furniture that arrives in a cardboard box, with all the screws, instructions and tools included. Our Platforms provide everything you need to replicate a site like FixMyStreet.com or WhatDoTheyKnow.com in your own country, city or region, but you need to do a little work to get it up and running.
Platforms are great for people who don’t want to spend a long time reinventing the wheel, and who want to get a basic, functional site up and running as fast as possible.
We provide the software, and you just need to add:
- Data to populate it
For example, if you’re setting up a website using the FixMyStreet platform, you need the names and email addresses of every bit of government that you want to send reports to. (This isn’t as daunting as it might sound – it might just be one authority and one email address! And if not, well, we’ve had lots of success with crowd-sourcing this sort of information).
- A server to host it on
We can help you here, if it’s a problem for you. See step 1 on this page.
- Enthusiastic people to run it
Don’t forget this vital consideration! Computers are great, but they can’t do everything themselves. You will need people – volunteers or paid staff – to promote, improve, and interact with the users of your website.
The following platforms are available to download and install:
For reporting common street problems such as potholes or broken streetlights. Creates transparency about local government, at the same time as providing a practical service to users.
Our Freedom-of-Information Platform. Whether or not your country has a Right to Know law, this Platform lets people ask questions to public authorities, – and it publishes all the conversations online.
If Platforms are like a flat-pack piece of furniture, Components are more like the parts of a kitchen. When you have a kitchen built, you get to choose from a number of parts that fit together: cupboards, drawers, shelves, etc. You can ignore things you don’t want, and add in things you do – and you end up with a kitchen that suits your needs.
Components will save you a lot of time because you won’t need to create database structures, APIs, search mechanisms, admin interfaces, and so on. Just slot in a Component – like you might slot in a dishwasher – and it’s all done for you. We’ve done our best to make them easy to deploy, easy to customise, and easy to connect together.
You will definitely need technical skills, although we are working on lowering that barrier. Components cannot run on their own – they need a website to fit into. And just as with our Platforms, you’ll need data. But you don’t need a server – we host the Components ourselves.
Right now we just have one component which is fully documented and ready to use, but we’re working on followups right now. This component is called MapIt.
MapIt is a web service which you can use to work out which boundaries a point or postcode exists within. An essential foundation for geographic lookups of all kinds. You can play with the UK instance here. We use it on:
- Our parliamentary monitoring website TheyWorkForYou.com. Users are shown their own MP’s data even if they don’t know who that MP is – all they have to do is input their postcode.
- Our ‘contact your representative’ site WritetoThem.com. Users input their postcode and are shown everyone who represents them, from local to European level.
- Our street problem-reporting site FixMyStreet.com. It sends problem reports to the relevant local council, based on the co-ordinates of where the problem was reported.
We are also working on a new component for building Parliamentary Monitoring Websites on top of, called PopIt. It isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, but if you join the Components email list, you can follow progress.
Where can I get these Platforms and Components ?
They’re all on Github, as is all our code (including a lot that we haven’t made easy to re-install yet). As it’s open source code, you can take them for free.
If you want to use MapIt, or learn about our future components, please sign up for the Components mailing list at the same time – it can be an invaluable place to get support when you have questions. You can also improve the code – sharing your improvements with us is a great way to say thank you. Plus, if you have ideas for other Components that will work well with ours, we’d love to hear about them.
We don’t just build this stuff, we also help people install and run it. Keep in touch and let us know how you’re using our code, and what is or is not working. If you hit any problems, there is always someone who can help.
We’ve put together a simple guide to Getting Started with Alaveteli. It consists of just seven steps.
At step one, your Freedom of Information website is nothing but a dream. By step seven, you’ll be the proud owner of your very own version, providing a valuable service for your country’s citizens!
What is Alaveteli?
Alaveteli is our platform that allows anyone to run their own Freedom of Information website – like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but tailored to your own country’s Right To Information system.
If you’re considering setting up your own site, it’s inevitable that you’ll have all sorts of questions. We want to be with you every step of the way, to answer all your questions and offer help where you need it.
We’ve made Alaveteli as simple as possible, because we want anyone to be able to use it, without needing much technical knowledge.
So our guide is for everyone, including people who have never before launched their own website (if you have bags of experience, you should read it too – it’s still useful!)
It answers pressing questions like:
- How long does it take to create an Alaveteli site?
- How many people do I need to help me, and how do I find them?
- What technical skills are needed?
- How do I get the site translated into my own language?
- Should I launch with a big bang?
- How many hours a week will I be dedicating to the site, once it’s live?
If you want to know the answers to those questions, go and read it! And if you still have questions, please let us know. We’ll add more detail as it’s asked for.
If you’re technically confident, you should also head to our Alaveteli developers’ guide. Plus you will want to sign up to our Alaveteli mailing list, where you can discuss all things Alaveteli, and get advice, support and the answers to all your questions.
AlaveteliCon will be the world’s first gathering of FOI hackers from around the world.
On 2nd and 3rd April, over 50 people from 30 different countries will come together in Oxford, UK – from as far and wide as Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Albania. This diverse bunch of people will have one thing in common – they’re all building Freedom of Information websites, based on our Alavateli platform.
What is Alaveteli?
It’s the easily-accessible, open-source codebase that allows anyone to run an FOI website like WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own country.
When we launched WhatDoTheyKnow in 2008, our main focus was getting the site up and working for the UK. Its aim was simple: anyone can use the site to make an FOI request to a public body, and the whole correspondence is published online.
And it works – over 100,000 requests have been made to more than 5,000 authorities in the intervening four years.
It soon became apparent that people in other countries wanted to replicate WhatDoTheyKnow – and as an open-source organisation that favours governmental transparency everywhere, we’re very glad to help.
The trouble is, the original codebase from WhatDoTheyKnow.com wasn’t very replicable. It was built for the UK political system, and it couldn’t be easily picked up and tailored to another country – not without a lot of hard work*.
And so Alaveteli was born, in a project led by mySociety developer Seb Bacon. You might think of it as the second generation WhatDoTheyKnow – built with international implementation in mind. Alaveteli can be shaped to any country’s FOI laws, translated into any language, and installed with minimal technical knowledge.
Why a conference?
In the five months since Alaveteli was launched, it has been installed in six different jurisdictions, with three more in active development, and several others on the way. As each international website has taken shape, two things became clear to us:
- Every jurisdiction has its own idiosyncratic FOI laws, leading to a unique set of issues,
and at the same time:
- Every install of the codebase brings up certain universal issues, that will apply to anyone in any jurisdiction.
In the spirit of these two opposing truths, we are bringing people together at AlaveteliCon. We want to share knowledge and stories, answer questions and ask them, too.
There will be practical hands-on sessions; there will be discussions about the future direction of the platform; and there will, above all, be an opportunity to forge an Alaveteli community, members of whom know one another by sight rather than through a mailing group.
It sounds great – can I come?
At this moment, the conference is fully-booked. However, you can put your name on our waiting list in case of cancellations.
Meanwhile, don’t despair – we’ll be posting photos and summaries of all the sessions on the Alaveteli blog.
Now I’m all excited about Alaveteli – can I install it for my own country?
*It is worth noting that several coders in other countries did so anyway, with a lot of hard work.