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A web app to allow readers to easily check whether they are entitled to a reduction on their energy bill, which positively impacted the news organisation’s membership numbers and started a country-wide conversation about algorithmic transparency.
Civio is an independent non-profit news organisation based in Madrid, Spain that monitors public authorities and campaigns for greater transparency within government.
It was founded in 2012 with the mission to ensure that Spanish citizens have access to the information they need in their daily life.
Civio employs 10 people, including journalists, developers, public policy specialists, marketing and business developers, and works with public representatives to change public policy.
In February 2019, Civio was awarded a grant from the Engaged Journalism Accelerator to build an online community space and make better use of its readers’ expertise.
Last year, Eva Belmonte, co-director of Civio, learned that the Spanish government was changing the way people applied for Bono Social de Electricidad, the energy subsidy for vulnerable people. The process was now online and 1.85 million people in Spain were at risk of losing their tariff if they didn’t reapply within one month (The application process was eventually extended).
The team worried that elderly people would miss out because BOSCO, the software created by the Spanish Ministry for Green Energy Transition, was very complex. Civio tried to lobby the authorities to simplify the application process, but nothing was done.
The team, led by Raul Diaz, a developer and former colleague, decided to create a web application that allowed people to fill in some basic details and find out if they were eligible for the tariff. If they were, the app explained what they needed to do to apply for the subsidy - the application itself was processed by the energy company.
The web app, launched in June 2018, was designed to be very easily embeddable in any third-party site. This was critical in its success.
It was also designed so that users could download forms with information that they had already provided, so as to avoid entering it again. That made the process of completing applications much easier.
The team made a point of minimising the data they collected from people filling in the form and did not request contact details as they feared it would reduce the number of people using the web app.
Civio worked with the National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC) that oversees markets and consumers rights in Spain to ensure the web app met their standards and that it reached their members.
Javier de Vega, Civio’s communication lead, also sent a newsletter to subscribers and reached out via email to over 300+ Spanish municipalities, 70+ NGOs (e.g. Red Cross), 80+ pensioner associations, 150+ consumer defence organisations and 50+ media outlets to ask them to pass the message on to their members or embed the app on their site.
Between the app’s launch and when the new Bono Social became effective, over 220,000 people used the web app and 20,000 application forms for the subsidies were downloaded. This was significantly higher than expected.
(NB: Despite Civio’s work, the number of people who applied for Bono Social was lower than expected. 2.5m had been estimated to receive the subsidy (which was unlikely without an extensive information campaign) and only 1.1m people did so.)
Of the government and public bodies contacted, over 20 municipalities embedded or disseminated the app and a further 30 NGOs did so on their website.
Civio saw a 53% increase in the number of new regular donors in the second half of 2018 (112 new members) compared to the first half (73). This cannot be directly attributed to the Bono Social app as they also published a large investigation, Medicamentalia, which drove paying members.
After the app launched, Civio received dozens of calls from people who were wrongly dismissed for subsidies and had no way to discuss their case with a government official. In total, the Civio team fielded over 200 emails and calls between them over the course of one month.
The calls made Civio suspect that the government’s software was not working properly and they asked for more information about it. They got no reply from the Spanish administration regarding the code. Despite the Council of Transparency and Good Governance (CTBG) refusing to disclose the algorithm or provide any further information, Civio were able to expose that the software was turning down applications from consumers who were eligible to these subsidies.
Last month, Civio appealed the decision of the Transparency Council on grounds that they don’t want “public administration to develop algorithms hidden from public scrutiny.'' The case continues.
Olalla Tuñas, head of participation and community, Civio
"Sometimes we need to go beyond journalism to serve our community and find solutions for people’s daily struggles. This experiment was really low-cost and moderately easy to implement. It opens future opportunities of replication with other issues, for example, other subsidies and policy changes."
How would you improve it?
"We wanted to erase barriers and didn't ask even for an email address. Although we think it was the right decision, having the email would have allowed us to follow-up with the user and get to know if he had been granted the subsidy at the end of the process (we only know the successes when the readers got in touch again to appreciate the initiative)."
DataJournalism.com (a project run by the European Journalism Centre) has a handy guide to building news apps to last.
This post from February 2019 looks at the last five years of Data Journalism Award winners, including a number of web apps similar to Civio’s Bono Social.
Civio's director Eva Belmonte speaks to Algorithm Watch about their ongoing battle for the source code of the BOSCO software.