Civic Tech Monthly, August 2015

Welcome to the seventh edition of Civic Tech Monthly. Below you’ll find news and notes about civic tech from Australia and around the world.

It seems like August has been a busy month for civic hackers everywhere because this month we’ve got a bunch of new projects from around the world for you.

As always we’d love to see you at the OpenAustralia Foundation Sydney Pub Meet next Tuesday if you’re in town. Last month’s lightning talks and new venue in Surry Hills were a big success. We’re doing it all again this month so come along and tell us something interesting in civic tech you’ve seen or done.

If you know someone who’d like this newsletter, pass it on: http://eepurl.com/bcE0DX.

News and Notes

Introduction to Web Scraping Workshop in Sydney

Join us in Sydney in two weeks time to learn how to write a web scraper. You can use a scraper to quickly grab all kinds of information for analysis and processing. Scrapers are the backbone of OpenAustralia Foundation projects such as They Vote For You and PlanningAlerts—we’re always finding new ways that scrapers can help, and we’re keen to share this skill. You can find out more and register via our blog post.

This is a hands-on, half-day workshop and by the afternoon you will have written a web scraper. Tickets are $295 and the workshop is in Redfern, Sydney on Friday the 4th of September. You will need a laptop and some programming experience to attend but you don’t have to be an expert. If you know what a variable, loop and array are, then this is for you.

This is a new experiment for the OpenAustralia Foundation. We’re trying out a new approach to help people who want to make their own projects. If you can’t make the workshop, but know someone who might be interested, we’d really appreciate if you could pass this along.

Thank you Tom

It was Tom Steinberg’s last day at mySociety earlier this month. He’s made a huge contribution to civic tech everywhere. It’s been our absolute pleasure to work with him over the years and we’d like to especially thank him for being generous with his advice whenever we asked. We can’t wait to see what he gets up to after his chillax and we wish him very well.

We also love this delightfully mad post from the excellent Francis Irving celebrating Tom and all the other amazing people that have contributed to mySociety over the years – “Those brief moments when winning seems possible”.

Soft launch of Freedom of Information Portal for Malaysia

You can now use Malaysia’s first Freedom of Information portal to ask their governments for information. Of course it’s built on Alaveteli!

By law, we have Freedom of Information Enactments (FOIE) in the following two states: Selangor & Penang. However, we have also added the avenue to request for information from Public Authorities not covered by FOI in order to gauge what citizens want to know at the Federal level.

This is a nice example of one of the Civic Patterns we like to follow at OAF: “When designing a service, make your process reflect the legal rules that you wish existed, instead of those that do. Reality will catch up.”

Yo Quiero Saber 2015

This month Argentines got to compare the basic positions of candidates using a simple game. First you have to state your position on an issue, then the you see the positions of the candidates. This dynamic leads you through to see where you stand on a range of issues compared to to all the candidates.

The feedback so far is that people felt informed and used it to pick candidates that better represented their views. Martín Szyszlican, one of the creators, says they’ll keep running and developing the project, and that the big challenge is to reach more people. This time they had over 1% of voters, doubling their audience in 2013, but not enough to impact election results.

Help work out the gender balance of 100 parliaments

Which country has the highest proportion of women in parliament? Do women vote differently on issues like defence, the environment, or maternity benefits? Exactly when did women come into power in different countries, and did their presence change the way the country was run? Frustratingly, these are questions for which it’s difficult to provide an answer, because the objective data just isn’t there … So we created Gender Balance, an easy game that crowd-sources gender data across every parliament in the world.

Believe it or not, but you can have fun, learn about your parliament, and generate useful open data all at the same time. Get to it!

OpenPlanning Launches in Hampshire, UK

Hampshire Hub have teamed up with mySociety to prototype a tool to demystify the local planning process. This is a new take on making local planning records more useful. You can read more in Ben Nickolls blog post on the project.

In excellent open source fashion, this prototype is forked from the OpenAustralia Foundation’s PlanningAlerts, which in turn is based the UK’s original planningalerts.com. As civicpatterns.org says “Don’t Reinvent The Wheel”

It looks like the team is considering how to merge some of their upgrades back into PlanningAlerts.org.au, which would be truly fantastic.

Dare to talk about your civic tech mistakes — submit your failure story

In a small room full of friends, talking about failure should be easy. But for some reason — maybe because of the relative novelty of using more expensive technologies for social innovation — people working around civic technology are not used to admitting when their projects don’t work. And while this sort of dishonesty might help with short-term opportunities (especially when it comes to funding), it has a serious effect on long-term sustainability: We cannot learn from our mistakes.

Tell the Sunlight Foundation about your unsuccessful projects so they can work out the patterns and help us all improve our work.

CKAN meetup and Hacks/Hackers in Sydney

In more Sydney event news, after the scraping workshop we can walk down to the CKAN meetup. There’ll be lots of people with experience working with and publishing open data.

Hacks/Hackers is also back on in Sydney. The next meetup, Data Journalism and Investigations in Political Reporting, is on Wednesday evening, September 16. You should give a lightning talk if you’re in town.

How far does your MP tread the party line?

You can greatly improve or reduce the usability of a resource just by changing its text. This is an interesting post about the impact of wording in a civic tech site and how the TheyWorkForYou team approached improving it.

101 web scraping and research tasks for the data journo (or civic hacker)

If you want to learn scraping or polish your skills (and can’t make it to our workshop ;-) ) then here’s 101 tasks to keep you busy.

Help develop the Influence Mapping Toolbox

You can help the development of new tools to map the role of personal ties and economic interests in politics. If you have an influence mapping project, or are interested in getting one started, you can help the team with their initial research and shape development of their new tools. You’ll also find lots of interesting discussion on the topic of influence mapping at the Influence Mapping Google Group.

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Introduction to Web Scraping Workshop in Sydney

Web scraping is a flexible and powerful technique to collect data for your projects. You can use a scraper to quickly grab all kinds of information for analysis and processing. Scrapers are the backbone of our projects such as They Vote For You and PlanningAlerts— we’re always finding new ways that scrapers can help.

There’s been a lot of interest in our scraping platform morph.io recently, and in web scraping generally. After seeing how quickly people can get productive with scrapers at our two recent events, we’ve been thinking about how we can continue to share these skills. We decided to organise a half-day training course, which we’re announcing today!

Join us for the Introduction to Web Scraping Workshop, Friday September 4th in Sydney.

In this hands on, half-day workshop you’ll get experience creating a scraper with developers from the OpenAustralia Foundation. By the afternoon you’ll have written a scraper to collect data from websites daily.

Tickets are $295 and we’ve limited it to 16 spaces so everyone gets lots of attention. As always, we are a charity so all revenue goes directly back into the development and maintenance of our projects.

Henare Degan and Luke Bacon from the Foundation will be leading the workshop.

Who should attend?

If you’re a data journalist, app developer, researcher, or you just need to quickly collect and track information, then knowing how to scrape data from the web will save you time and open up new opportunities.

PLEASE NOTE: To attend this workshop you’ll need some basic experience with programming, web development and using GitHub. You will need to bring a laptop to write your scraper on.

In the workshop we will be writing scrapers in the Ruby programming language, but you do not need experience with Ruby. Beginner level knowledge in any language is fine (e.g. Javascript, PHP, Python, etc.). You’ll be able to take what you learn and use it with any language.

If you have any questions about the event please contact us.

Thanks to the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance for hosting us at their lovely venue in Redfern.

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Civic Tech Monthly, July 2015

Welcome to the sixth edition of Civic Tech Monthly. Below you’ll find news and notes about civic tech from Australia and around the world.

It’s been very cold here in Sydney. People were even snowboarding down the main street of Katoomba, where our co-founders live.

Maybe that means people have been hibernating because this month we started with slim pickings for the newsletter. Fortunately we’ve managed to pull together some interesting links to share with you nonetheless. Remember, if you’d like to submit your own links you can do so right on the GitHub repository where we prepare this newsletter.

Folks coming to the Sydney Pub Meet on Tuesday are in for a treat this month. Anyone can give a lightning talk to share something interesting in civic tech they’ve seen or done. This means we’ve also got a lovely new venue – the Trinity Bar in Surry Hills. We’ve also got more room so there’s still spots available for you to RSVP and come along.

Know someone who would like these newsletters? Pass on the sign up link http://eepurl.com/bcE0DX.

News and Notes

Citizens vs Customers: Democracy in the age of Google

Check out the video of the Google Tech Talk that Matthew Landauer gave prior to the Google Serve event we mentioned in last month’s edition. You can also read more about what we achieved with a little scraping and the help of some civic-minded Googlers in Luke Bacon’s blog post, “Another 2 million people can get PlanningAlerts“.

Become a supporter of morph.io

Speaking of scraping, this month we added a way for people to support our free and open scraping platform, morph.io. By becoming a supporter you can keep morph.io free for everyone and make it even more awesome. There’s also the option to get priority technical support if you need it. A huge thank you to the wonderful people who have already shown their support. Please give them a hug if you see them.

Unearthing interesting data

There are almost 3,000 scrapers on morph.io which means there’s all sorts of interesting data to play with. Here’s a few that caught our eye this month:

What interesting data have you seen? Tweet us: @morph_io

Hello to mySociety’s new CEO, Mark Cridge

Like so many people we were sad to hear that Tom Steinberg, mySociety’s founder, was stepping down. Now we’re excited to welcome Mark Cridge as their new CEO. We’re looking forward to working with Mark in the future and we hope to meet him soon.

Alaveteli 0.22

While we’re on the topic of mySociety, they’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22. This is the software that runs Right To Know, and so many other Freedom of Information request sites around the world. We wouldn’t normally include something so technical in the newsletter but this is a big release and also includes contributions from our very own Luke Bacon and Henare Degan. Some of these contributions are a direct result of AlaveteliCon 2015, which we’ve mentioned in previous editions.

Flagpost

This site was generating a bit of chatter on Twitter recently. We think it’s a really nice example of what can happen when governments engage in an open process and civic hackers see a way to dive in and make it even better. Flagpost collects and overlays additional useful data about submissions to New Zealand’s national flag redesign process. And of course the data to make this happen comes from a scraper, which itself is an extension of another scraper. That’s some fine civic hacking collaboration.

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Another 2 million people can get PlanningAlerts

Volunteers at the GoogleServe event

Volunteers at the GoogleServe event

Another 2 million people in Australia now have a simple way to impact development in their local area. Last month the OpenAustralia Foundation teamed up with a group of volunteer engineers from Google and have expanded the availability of our project PlanningAlerts to 21 more local council areas.

The event was part of the GoogleServe program, a week in June where Google staff work on projects with local not-for-profit organisations around the world. It was also the 7th birthday of OAF’s first project OpenAustralia.org.au.

Volunteers writing scrapers  together

The crew writing scrapers together

We spent the 16th and 17th of June at Google’s Sydney office. We mostly focused on expanding the coverage of PlanningAlerts but also collecting useful data and introducing our other projects. We looked at summarising divisions in They Vote For You, collected basic information on local councilors throughout Australia and added new capabilities to morph.io. Matthew Landauer, OAF founder and co-director, also kicked things off with a presentation on our projects and mission titled ‘Citizens vs Customers’.

Matthew Landauer talking with attendees after his presentation

Matthew Landauer talking with attendees after his presentation

We had a great time working with everyone and were really impressed by the volunteers practical approach. Here are some of the outcomes from the event:

  • A huge amount of useful data was made public through morph.io;
  • that data is immediately being used by citizens all over Australia through PlanningAlerts;
  • a bunch of open source developers got to know each other and are continuing to collaborate; and
  • we all got to learn and practice scraping, which increases our capacity to collect data.

As a small charity, these practical outcomes, for citizens, attendees and our organisation, are crucial.

2015-06 OAF Google - 24 of 25

Our scoreboard showing some of the councils we worked on and the population count.

A huge thanks to Tim Ansell from Google for organising the event and to everyone who came along. We were extremely impressed by the volunteers. They dived straight in, asked questions without fear, learned what they needed, and started making practical contributions right away. It was a great example of how these kind of hacking events can give existing open source projects a solid boost. What a birthday present to the OpenAustralia Foundation and what a win for local democracy!

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Civic Tech Monthly, June 2015

Welcome to the fifth edition of Civic Tech Monthly. Below you’ll find news and notes about civic tech from Australia and around the world.

It was our 7th birthday this month (yay!) so we hope you’ll indulge us a little while we share a little more news about ourselves than usual. That also gives us a great reason to remind you that the entire production of Civic Tech Monthly is done in the open on GitHub. We very much welcome your suggestions throughout the month for items to add to the newsletter.

If you’d like to share the sign up link it’s http://eepurl.com/bcE0DX. Sydneysiders, we hope to see you at the Pub Meet on Tuesday.

News and Notes

Scraping get-togethers galore

For the last couple of months Luke Bacon and Matthew Landauer have been working hard on polishing our scraping platform, morph.io. This has handily coincided with a number of Sydney events to do with scraping, organised by us and others.

If you’re in Sydney tonight, Thursday the 25th of June, head along to Australia Open Data’s event organised by Rosie Williams of InfoAus fame. About a fortnight ago Luke organised a low key event dedicated to scraping that was a great success. We also had a great time scraping with Googlers last week and we’ll share more exciting news about that with you very soon – keep your eyes peeled on the blog.

Helping people open governments around the world – AlaveteliCon 2015

Last month #Alaveteli15 had top billing in this newsletter. This month you can read all about Henare Degan’s experience at the conference in his blog post summing up the two huge days he had at the conference. From sharing war stories of peoples’ experiences using Freedom of Information with Right To Know in Australia, through to hatching international plans to develop a guide to what makes a good FOI law in today’s online world.

s115a.com

Australia’s Parliament recently voted to enact legislation which allows copyright holders (like movie, TV and music producers) to apply to the Federal Court to have piracy-related websites blocked. Will Ockenden created s115a.com (named after the section of the law that was added) in an attempt to introduce some transparency to those site-blocking laws by letting you know when an application is made, and (hopefully) the final result.

18F launches new US openFOIA site

18F is the US Government’s digital services delivery team, similar to the well known and regarded GDS in the UK (that the Australian Government is hoping to repeat with the DTO). They have just launched openFOIA, which guides citizens through the process of making a Freedom of Information request. It’s interesting to see a government-delivered take on this (and heartening that they at least acknowledge this has been done before). It’s being developed in the open on GitHub, like everything else 18F do.

A step forward for open government in NSW and the NT

Anyone can now easily make requests for information from New South Wales and the Northern Territory governments and local councils using Right To Know. We’ve added hundreds of new authorities to the site and made a host of changes to facilitate some of the quirks in the different access to information laws. We’re really pleased to see some authorities already helping citizens access information important to them. You can read more of the nitty-gritty in our blog post announcing the launch.

Civic tech job opportunities

It’s not often these come up so we’re excited to hear about two sets of job opportunities this month. Code for Australia is hiring fellows – they’re looking for developers, designers or community organisers to work at the NSW Department of Family and Community Services and the Victorian Neighbourhood Justice Centre. Applications are also open for the next cohort of Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellows, they’re after developers, technologists, civic hackers, or data crunchers who want to help change the world of journalism.

The next 3 months are going to be really busy – here is our plan

Since the beginning of this year the core team at the OpenAustralia Foundation has been getting together for a day every quarter to make a plan for the upcoming 3 months. This time Matthew Landauer has written up our plans in a blog post. As you’ll see in the post we’ve got another very busy 3 months ahead!

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The next 3 months are going to be really busy – here is our plan

Planning Session Whiteboard

Since the beginning of this year the core team at the OpenAustralia Foundation has been getting together for a day every quarter to make a plan for the upcoming 3 months. As our team grows (we’re now 3 full time people) these kinds of occasional but regular planning sessions help to keep us working well together.

On Monday 22 June we got together in person in Sydney to plan out what we would do from the beginning of July to the end of September this year.

This is also a good opportunity for us all to take a step back and look at our big picture priorities.

This is roughly how we structured the planning session:

  • We looked back at our previous 3 months and wrote down every big thing we’d achieved or actively put on hold. Had each item been in our plan for the previous 3 months? What deviated from the plan and why? What was good about it? What was bad about it? – This wasn’t supposed to be a debrief or review. The purpose of looking at the last 3 months was purely about helping focus and seeing what affected our plan for the next 3 months.
  • Then, we created our big picture wish list for what we’d all like to work on next. This was a mixture of things that were in our plan for the year as well things that we individually or as a group feel passionate about. We’re firm believers in taking advantage of our passions and energy when the mood strikes. So, sometimes we juggle things to keep those passions alive. It’s important to us that working at the OpenAustralia Foundation doesn’t just become “a job”.
  • Then, we moved items from that wishlist to a 3 month calendar very roughly estimating the time for each thing, taking into account any holidays that we each had booked and who would likely work on what. This is the stage that generated the most discussion and the most difficult choices.

And now to the plan…

A plan for what to work on also includes what not to work on. We decided not to work on Right To Know over July – October to let the addition of NSW and NT to Right To Know “bed in”. Our administration and support for the site will continue as normal and we expect to learn a lot about the freedom of information laws in each state and specific issues that people run into as they make requests.

July

A Federal Election later in the year?

There’s a reasonable chance that we will have a Federal election later this year and so we took the opportunity to start thinking about what we might specifically do that’s focused on the election. In recent Federal elections we’ve run the electionleaflets.org.au site which has taken the majority of our time in the run up to the election. Most of that was on publicising the site through the mainstream media, partnering with news organisations, the National Library of Australia and using social media to get the message out, and targeting leaflet collectors through local libraries across the country.

As a result of the new unsustainable effort it requires at each election we decided earlier this year that we would be winding down our support for Election Leaflets. We do plan to write more about this soon.

So, at the next federal election we’re looking to be putting our support behind another project. Instead of starting something new we’d like to support an already existing and successful community-led project. We have a project in mind and we’ll be contacting them soon to see if they’d like to work with us.

Monthly meetups

For the last year we’ve been hosting a monthly meetup in Sydney with the aim of nurturing and supporting the burgeoning civic technology community in Australia. It’s been a very low-key event, with good people sharing ideas, company and support over a few beers.

Starting in July we aim to experiment a little with the format of these monthly meetups with the aim of increasing the number of people who build and start small civic technology projects. So, to start with, we’re going to add lightning talks to the pub meet to give people a platform to talk about the cool things they’ve made.

We would also love for there to be monthly meetups in every major city in Australia covering the kinds of work that we do as well as the broader civic tech area.

Specifically, in July we plan to do our bit to help get a meetup going in Brisbane.

Making morph.io even better

For a good chunk of July, the plan is that Henare and Matthew will focus on morph.io. There have been some big changes to the morph.io backend which runs scrapers and it’s important that Henare is up to speed with how that all works now so that he’s able to effectively provide support for our growing user base.

Also, we’re going to add a feature to give people the option to financially support morph.io through a monthly subscription with the higher scales offering priority technical support. Just for fun (and a little social motivation) we’re going to make this public by putting little badges on peoples’ public morph.io profiles.

We’re also going to do a big push on the morph.io documentation especially the “how to get started” kind of documentation. This will include highlighting particular libraries for each language that we recommend. We will also see if we can get other open source scraping libraries to mention us in their documentation to get the word out to more people about the open source morph.io platform.

Renegotiating commercial PlanningAlerts API contracts

As you are probably aware we charge for commercial access to the PlanningAlerts API. Most contracts are now up for renegotiation. We plan to start this process with our commercial clients in the middle of July. The purpose of course for us is to increase our fees (our coverage has increased, most clients’ usage has increased) so that we can continue to build and maintain services like PlanningAlerts for everyone.

Upgrading and migrating servers

We’ve had plans afoot since the beginning of the year to upgrade and change our server infrastructure. We need to do this because the version of Ubuntu we’re running on our main server is at the end of its life and we want to take the opportunity to move away from one monolithic server which runs the majority of our sites to a larger set of smaller virtual machine (VMs) which run individual sites.

We’ve hit a big delay along the way to do with our hosting provider building the capacity to provision multiple smaller VMs. So, instead we plan to take an alternative approach if its possible of separately upgrading our monolithic server first followed by the migration to smaller VMs later in the year. The upgrade needs to happen as soon as possible. Hopefully we can make it happen in July.

August

Charging commercial users of PlanningAlerts

There are a large number of real-estate agents and property developers who use the free PlanningAlerts service to help them do their job. We think this is a good thing. For those people who use PlanningAlerts to help get them an income we would like to find ways to get those people to financially support PlanningAlerts.

That’s why in August we plan to start charging people who have 3 or more email alerts setup in PlanningAlerts. For community groups or non-commercial individual users who have 3 or more alerts they will still be able to get that for free if they contact us.

Scraping course and workshop

At the beginning of September we plan to run a scraping course and workshop. We will start planning and organising this in the beginning of August.

September

The month will start by holding the scraping course and workshop.

PlanningAlerts – write to your local councillor

Then, Luke and Henare will start working on our next major project. The idea is simple. In PlanningAlerts allow people to write to their councillor about a development application on top of what it currently does which allows you to write a comment on a development application which directly feeds back into the official process.

The aim is to strengthen the connection between citizens and local councillors around one of the most important things that local government does which is planning.

This will actually be a surprisingly technically involved project which will involve quite a few different pieces. We will need to find out every councillor in the country, including their contact details (and hopefully their picture). We already starting collecting this data by writing scrapers. Then, information will need to get crowdsourced. We plan to store this information in PopIt (so it can be reused by others) and we will integrate PlanningAlerts with WriteIt to actually send the emails to the councillors.

Then, of course, there’s the vital bit of making this work beautifully and simply within the existing PlanningAlerts application. This is the most fun, satisfying and crucial bit.

Making PlanningAlerts commenting even better

While they’re working on that they will also explore improving some of the flow of the whole commenting process. What if people had a next step after adding a comment? Start a campaign? Share their comment on social media? There’s some really interesting possibilities here that could significantly improve peoples’ positive experience and increase the number of people who engage with their local government. A win win.

What can you do?

If you like what you see here and would like to help make all these things happen then support us by making a donation. After all, it’s almost the end of the financial year and any donation over $2 you make to us is tax deductible.

Thank you!

Posted in Morph, OpenAustralia Foundation, PlanningAlerts.org.au, RightToKnow.org.au | 1 Response

A little scraping goes a long way

Photo of us hacking on scrapers together.

Photo by Nick Evershed

Last night, about 10 of us got together in Sydney for a fun night of scraping and learning about morph.io. I organised the get together because I’m just really excited about writing scrapers and using data from morph.io at the moment. I’ve only been writing scrapers for the last few months as Matthew and I have been working on adding new features and evolving morph.io’s interfaces.

I think writing scrapers is a great candidate for a hack event activity. Scrapers don’t take long to write and a lot of the code and techniques are common between scrapers so people can share and teach each other. Once a scraper is written, it just keeps paying you back with useful data because morph.io takes care of all the grunt work. Each new scraper collects previously obscurely published, unstructured data and opens it up for new research, reporting and civic tech possibilities. Henare tells me that the PlanningAlerts scraper hackfest in 2011 was one of the OpenAustralia Foundation’s most productive events, adding PlanningAlerts coverage for over 1,823,124 Australians. A little scraping can go a long way.

So what did we do?

Matthew fixed up and reviewed PlanningAlerts scrapers. The fine people of Yarra Ranges Shire, Victoria can now be informed and have their say on changes to their local area.

Henare wanted to open up data from the NSW Environmental Protection Agency and remembered he’d written something for ScraperWiki Classic a few years back. His scraper to collect all prosecutions under the NSW Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (POEO Act) is now running on morph with over 1000 new records.

Nick published one of his Australian Electoral Commission scrapers which collects political donation records. It ran for 17 hours overnight and collected 29k records. He says he’s got a few more like this to put up too. Nick took his Guardian colleague Todd Moore through morph.io for the first time. Maybe we’ll see some more scrapers emerging from there–Todd seems to have an interest collecting news about Cyclist Demons. Pat and Nick also explored Bureau of Meteorology data.

Chris worked on his scraper that tracks documents tabled in NSW Parliament.

Rosie and I started making a scraper to collect Australian government contract award notices. Matthew helpfully showed us how to create and write to files in Ruby to help with reading .xlsx spreadsheets.

Erietta sketched out a big pad full of observations and ideas about how non-programmer journalists approach scraping and the questions they have.

Jack explored the data in morph.io with a focus on records of domestic violence in Australia. He also found that Alex Sadlier’s site disclosurelo.gs, that tracks documents released by Australian Government agencies through Freedom of Information requests, was’t updating, prompting Alex to get that working again (thanks Alex!)

A huge thanks to Nick and the Guardian for providing us lovely space to hack in.

New useful data was added to the public domain and people discovered why morph.io is so awesome. I’d call that a success. Thanks for coming along everyone, I had a great time catching up and ranting on about morph.io—see you next time!

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A step forward for open government in NSW and the NT

Warragamba Dam spilling image by Sydney Catchment Authority, used under Creative Commons. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/77473963@N03/6960820775

Photo by Sydney Catchment Authority, used with thanks under Creative Commons

Millions of people in New South Wales and the Northern Territory can now easily make requests for information from their governments and local councils. We’ve added hundreds of new authorities to Right To Know that cover state, territory, and local government in NSW and the NT.

Right To Know makes it simple for you discover useful government information by helping you create a Freedom of Information (FOI) request (they have slightly different names in NSW and the NT and we’ll talk about the differences in laws soon). By automatically publishing the entire correspondence of the request online it makes it easy for other people to discover information released by our governments, and learn how to make effective requests themselves.

It’s been a long journey for us to add these new authorities. You’d probably be surprised at how much work is needed to gather information on all the authorities covered by FOI laws around Australia – there’s no comprehensive list available. It wasn’t just the data gathering exercise that took a lot of effort.

Every state and territory around Australia is covered by its own access to information law. That means there’s 9 different laws to consider including the Federal level, each with key differences. We work really hard on all OpenAustralia Foundation projects to insulate people from this kind of complexity. People just want the government to give them the information they need – they don’t want to have to become an FOI expert.

A critical problem with the FOI laws of every Australian state and the NT is that they require a fee, typically around $30, just to lodge a request for information. This entry fee is a clear impediment to the stated goals of these laws to make government information readily accessible to the people. We’ve deliberately not catered for this problematic part of the law in Right To Know.

All the Australian FOI laws have provisions for informal access or fee waivers. Our hope is that government agencies will do the right thing by requesters and exercise these helpful provisions in the laws. We’re pleased to share examples on Right To Know of agencies in NSW and the NT that are doing exactly this – helping people access the information they’ve requested with as little administrative cost as possible.

The Sydney Catchment Authority was extremely helpful in providing river water quality data in response to a request from Luke Bacon. The City of Darwin council also helpfully provided a set of documents in response to a request I made about changes to parking permits in the city. We would like to send out a big thank you to the authorities and FOI officers who for provided this information. You serve as great examples for other FOI officers wanting to help citizens access government information important to them.

So, people of NSW and the NT, what information are you interested in? Go ahead and make a request on RightToKnow.org.au to find out.

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Helping people open governments around the world – AlaveteliCon 2015

A fortnight ago I had the privilege of attending AlaveteliCon 2015 in Madrid. It’s the conference about online Freedom of Information (FOI) technologies named after Alaveteli, the open source software that runs Right To Know.

Looking back it was a huge two days packed with sessions on every important aspect of running FOI request sites. While it would be impossible for me to give a recap on the whole conference, I hope to share my personal perspective in this post. As well as giving you sense of the conference it should also give you an idea of the types of topics that I’m finding particularly relevant to our current situation in Australia with Right To Know.

It’s the people

AlaveteliCon 2015 brought together over 50 people from dozens of different countries and all corners of the globe. It’s the people are always what make a conference and we’re lucky that the Alaveteli community is full of great people. Everyone candidly shared the successes, failures, frustrations, and downright hilarious moments that make up running an FOI request site. People at the conference represented sites that have hundreds of thousands of requests through to hundreds of requests, in countries with no FOI law through to countries with supposedly excellent laws.

Thank you to everyone that shared their stories at the conference. It was a powerful reminder that no matter how hard we think the struggle for access to information is in our own country, someone somewhere else in the world is facing much tougher odds. And importantly – there’s always more than one way to approach a problem to deal with those odds.

Telling war stories

The panel I was asked to participate in was about telling war stories. The conference organisers were particularly interested in hearing the extraordinary lengths a certain authority in Australia went to to avoid responding to a set of FOI requests. It was the story of the Detention Logs project.

While I shared the honest truth of the so far unsuccessful battle they’ve fought, I also wanted to point out a powerfully positive aspect of that project. By using open platforms like Alaveteli everything the project has produced so far will be a record for future generations and governments to learn from. It also means that anyone, at any time can continue and build on the work they’ve already done. In other words, by using open platforms it means that this story is far from over.

Using Alaveteli to change FOI laws for the better

The unconference session that I proposed and moderated on the second day was very popular – using sites like Alaveteli to change FOI laws for the better. Since there’s almost certainly no country in the world with perfect FOI laws it should be no surprise that this would be interesting to anyone running an FOI request site. Earlier in the conference we’d already heard that Civio and Access Info launched their Spanish FOI site before a law even existed and they successfully used the presence of their site and all its requests to advocate for the creation of an access to information law.

During the session we talked of creating a simple summary of what makes a good access to information law. Such as prompt and enforceable response times, no application fees, and accessible reviews of decisions. As we expand Right To Know to cover Australia’s states and territories this is of particular interest to us. Sadly every state and territory in Australia, except the ACT, has application fees in place for FOI requests. This financial entry fee needs to be removed to make access to information accessible to all and freedom of information, frankly, free.

Talking tech

The lead developers of the Alaveteli software, Louise and Gareth, also ran a technical session where they asked deployers what they should be focussing on. It was great to hear broad support for something we’ve all been pushing for for a while – improving the core engineering of the software to allow us all to confidently make improvements in the future.

It was also during another technical session, unfortunately hampered by struggling internet, that we decided to set up a Slack real-time chat for the project. The hope with this is that it becomes a place where people can ask questions that they otherwise wouldn’t over email using the existing mailing lists. It remains to be seen if this plays out but it’s an important experiment.

See you at the next AlaveteliCon

At the first AlaveteliCon in 2012 many of us that attended hadn’t even set up their Alaveteli site (including us!). Getting together 3 years later it was great to hear so many people now experienced in the running of a request site. As I said to a number of people during the conference, our challenge from AlaveteliCon 2015 is to create a close-knit community. A community where we know if we have a problem, someone somewhere in the world has our back and to get help we can just pick up the phone – or maybe the Internet equivalent instead :)

Cheers,

Henare

P.S. A huge thank you to the fantastic teams at mySociety, Access Info and Open Society Foundations that made AlaveteliCon 2015 happen. An especially big thanks for providing me with a travel bursary, without which I could not have participated.

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You now have to use a key to access the PlanningAlerts API

Three months ago we announced that you would need to get an API key to use the PlanningAlerts API.

We gave you lots of time to transition. We made the use of an API key optional during this transition period.

Now, as the start of June has passed, we’ve made the use of the API key mandatory.

If by any chance you missed the earlier announcements and today you’ve discovered that your application that uses the PlanningAlerts API isn’t working anymore then you’ll need to get yourself an API key.

Don’t worry. It’s very simple.

As ever, if you have any questions, please get in touch.

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