1. Mapping the Vikings’ influence on UK place names

    In the middle of the 9th Century, the territories of mainland Britain were in constant flux, with power shifting between the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Viking settlers.

    Towards the end of the century, the battles and power shifts reached a kind of equilibrium, with Alfred King of Wessex and Guthrum the Danish warlord agreeing a treaty defining the boundaries of their kingdoms.

    One of these boundaries was demarcated by Watling Street, an ancient trackway that stretched from Shrewsbury in the west of England to the Thames estuary in the east.

    The boundaries of Britain are different today, but the vestiges of this ancient divide remain in the names of the places that surround us.

    To illustrate this, mySociety has been working with the British Museum, with data sourced from the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name-Studies. We’ve created a simple interactive map as part of their Vikings Live event to show the Norse influence on around 2,000 place names in different parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

    A map of old Norse place names

    For each place, we’re showing its etymology, a breakdown of the different elements that make up its name and a link to the nearest cinema that will be showing the British Museum’s Vikings Live—a private view of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend in the company of world experts, presented live in your local cinema.

    The etymology of an old Norse place name

    So, for a completely different perspective of the place names near your home, head over to the British Museum’s site to explore the influence the Vikings had on the names where you live. And, next time you’re in a Thorpe, a Howe, a Kirkby, or even in Grunty Fen (our favourite place name), think of the Vikings who’ve left an indelible mark on the toponymy of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

  2. mySociety response to the Heartbleed security incident

    You may have heard that a widespread security problem – ‘Heartbleed’ – has been found that affects a large proportion of all websites on the Internet.

    Here is one of the many explanations about the nature of the problem.

    Members of the mySociety team have reviewed our potential exposure to the vulnerability.

    We have no indication that our sites have been attacked, or that any information has been stolen, but the nature of the vulnerability would make an attack difficult to detect, and we prefer to be reasonably cautious.

    What does this mean for you? The advice from around the web has been for people to change passwords, especially on sites they use that contain a lot of very important information (e.g. your email account).

    We think the risk that passwords have been compromised is low, but as changing passwords occasionally is always a good idea anyway, now might be a good time.

    For those of you interested in the technical detail of our response, we have:

    • Installed new SSL certificates based on a new private key
    • Revoked the old SSL certificates
    • Replaced the secrets used for security purposes in the affected sites
    • Removed active sessions on affected sites, so that users will need to log in again
    • Required that users with administrative access to affected sites reset their passwords
    • Required that staff users reset their passwords
    • Notified affected commercial clients so that they can take appropriate action
  3. Two new SayIt demos: Transcripts from Philadelphia City Council and the Federal Reserve

    Philadelphia City Hall by Stephen Downes

    Back in January, we introduced SayIt, our new software for the publication of transcripts. To show what it could do, we launched with a few demos.

    Today we’re launching a couple more demos using data from the United States, as a way of saying ‘hello!’ to American groups and individuals who might want to use modern transcripts for their own purposes.

    Philadelphia City Council Meetings

    Decisions affecting your house, your street or your job are often made in city government meetings. But who can be bothered to sit through hours of irrelevant waffle? Why can’t you just look for the things that matter to you?

    To show a better way, we’ve published a searchable, shareable version of Philadelphia’s City Council meetings available for use. It’s just a deployment of SayIt, filled with screen-scraped data.

    You don’t have to live in this city to find some of what’s talked about interesting. Some issues are international, and it’s interesting to see how e-cigarettes are also a concern for Philadelphia. There are also issues which, we suspect, are not common to all city governments.  ‘Giant tomato cannon‘ is one of them.

    Federal Reserve Transcripts

    We’re keen to demonstrate that SayIt isn’t just about what politicians say. Often unelected people say very important things too. Few discussions are more important to the way the world runs than the meetings of the Federal Reserve.

    The Fed publishes these with a five year delay, which means that what’s coming out now is all about the financial crisis in 2008. What exactly was said? Now that we’ve put the Federal Reserve Open Market transcripts from 2002 to 2008 online, you can find out far more easily than before.

    Browsing and searching these transcripts can be fascinating. At what point did the Committee first perceive there to be a crisis? And what kind of data indicates a recession?

    Do financial experts use loose terms like ‘gazillion’? Apparently so. How many times is the word ‘subprime’ used? Lots.

    Also, with SayIt you can search through the speeches of just one person. Want to know whether Ben Bernanke used certain terms? Have at it.

    As with other SayIt instances, these transcripts were previously available online, but spread across a huge number of old fashioned PDFs. For the first time, SayIt makes them easy to browse, search or link to.

    Want to see more transcripts up there?

    We’re looking to find one or more groups in the US who would be interested to use SayIt to help make citizens more powerful, in one way or another. We’re looking for people who think that access to certain kinds transcripts would really make a difference, and we’re not snobbish about whether it’s a really big issue or a really small one.

    If these two examples have given you ideas for transcripts you’d like to publish with SayIt, do get in touch.

    Image: Philadelphia City Hall by Stephen Downes (CC)
  4. Chatting about e-democracy and e-philosophy in Cardiff

    Thanks to everyone who came to Wednesday night’s meet-up at the uber-cool Founders Hub in Cardiff: it was great to meet you all.

    Apart from being fascinated by the Founders Hub’s 3D printer (we managed to print a bottle opener to crack open our beers!), we were really impressed with the interesting conversations and provocative debate that followed Daniele Procida and Sam Knight’s presentations.

    sam knightYour Senedd: Motivations for creation and the development process

    First up, it was really inspiring to hear Sam Knight talk about his motivations behind setting up and developing Your Senedd. Your Senedd is your go-to website to find out about the Welsh Assembly; whether you want to know who your Assembly Member is, their background and what speeches they’ve made, or read recent debates, it’s all there. You can even sign up for the weekly newsletter that gives an overview of what the Assembly is working on that week and what odd Assembly terminology actually means.

    It’d be fantastic if TheyWorkForYou also covered the Welsh Assembly, as we do with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we don’t currently have the time or resources ourselves — in fact, both those assemblies were mainly done by volunteers.

    If you’re interested in volunteering to help out, please join the mailing list.

    Sam set up Your Senedd back in 2011 in order to help more Welsh people engage with their Assembly, after hearing that only half of Welsh people knew who their first minister was. He also wanted to find a way to provide the Welsh public with information from the Assembly that wasn’t just inflammatory or sensational, as in the pre-Your Senedd days most of the Welsh Assembly debates reported by the mainstream media were ones that provoked anger, meaning that the public didn’t get to hear about the debates that really did matter to them. Your Senedd provides the public with impartial information about all Assembly debates.

    The future of Your Senedd

    Sam has improvements in mind for the website too: as with TheyWorkForYou, he plans to show Assembly Members’ voting history; he’d like to produce easy-to-read guides on how the Assembly works and how the public can get involved; and he would like the site to become more of a two-way conversation, instead of a one-way broadcaster. He plans to put all of the Assembly’s Statements of Opinion (similar to Westminster’s Early Day Motions) on the site and encourage the public to vote on them. What a great way to get people more involved with politics!

    Group of guysYour Senedd doesn’t just encourage the public to engage more in Welsh politics – Sam said that one Assembly Member was so scared that his lack of participation in debates shown on his Your Senedd page would damage his reputation, that he’s been involved with every debate since! Scaring Assembly Members into action wasn’t part of Sam’s original motivation, but it’s certainly an added benefit!

    If you have any questions for Sam, or any ideas of how Your Senedd could be improved or shared, please give him a tweet.

    Daniele Procida: ‘The Bodiless Head of the Programmer’

    skeleton at Founders HubOur second talk of the night was by Daniele Procida, who gave us an exclusive preview of his presentation for DjangoCon Europe, where he’ll be presenting in May. Daniele is co-organiser of DjangoCon Europe and runs DjangoCMS, as well as managing the University of Cardiff’s School of Medicine’s website.

    Daniele’s presentation was called ‘The Bodiless Head of the Programmer’ and drew from his background in philosophy. Daniele asked provocative questions such as ‘Who are the programmers that are increasingly building the world we live in and determining the systems that govern our lives?’ and ‘Does it matter who they are or just what they do?’.

    The liberalist stance is that it only matters what people do and not who they are – which as Daniele pointed out, is perfectly good and the correct approach when it comes to the justice system for example, but he questioned this approach when thinking about programmers. According to Daniele, we need to be more concerned about who programmers are, to make sure that not only one type or group of people are building our virtual new world, and therefore not taking into account the needs of those who are different from them.

    Daniele’s opinion is that there are currently too many white males in programming which liberalism says doesn’t matter (because the things they make should matter) but actually it does matter, because their inherent privilege affects the things they make and the way they see problems, meaning they can never fully understand the experience of someone who has lived without said privilege.

    Daniele’s presentation and thoughts fuelled a really good debate amongst those who came along – a healthy mix of agreement and disagreement was great to see, reminding us that we’re all entitled to our own opinions!

    If you’re intrigued by Daniele’s talk and viewpoints – try and check him out at DjangoCon in May.

    Many thanks to both Sam and Daniele for coming to do presentations – hope to see you again when we’re back in Cardiff!

    mySociety Monthly Meet-upspizza

    Our meet-ups now take place at different cities across the UK on the first Wednesday of every month. The next one will be in Bath on 7th May. Sign up here.

    Our programme of meet-ups is open to everyone. So whether you’re an open source veteran, or just a curious newbie interested in anything you see on mysociety.org, please come along.

     

  5. Seeking a Research Contractor with Transparency and Accountability Expertise

    Applications for this position have now closed.

    Are you interested in digital tools, but able to keep an intellectual detachment about their effectiveness? And are you free to do contract work in the next few months? If so, read on.

    mySociety is looking for a research specialist with experience in transparency and accountability issues. You may be a freelance researcher, or an agency providing research services.

    About mySociety and Alaveteli

    mySociety is a not-for-profit social enterprise. Our mission is to invent and popularise digital tools that enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers. We are based in the UK, but support partners who deploy our technologies across the globe, in about 20 countries so far.

    Shaft of Sunlight by Jenny DowningOne of our most popular tools has been Alaveteli, a tool that enables people to set up powerful freedom of information websites in their own countries. Spun-off from our highly popular UK site WhatDoTheyKnow, Alaveteli enables partners to set up and maintain sites that make it much easier to ask governments questions under Freedom of Information or Right to Information Laws.

    What makes the service truly powerful is that it automatically publishes both requests and responses online for other people to see, making the site into a public resource of potentially wide interest – the UK site has about 400,000 visitors a month.

    Alaveteli has been widely used in many different jurisdictions. In Hungary, to name just one Alaveteli instance, there have been over 2,000 different FOI requests so far.

    Research context

    No single activity or approach is enough to bring about a culture of transparency and accountability in a country.

    Countries with effective cultures of transparency acquire them slowly, and through a multifaceted process which may include campaigning, coalition building, journalistic scandal discovery, alliance building, protesting, whistleblowing, legal action, political leadership, elections, legislation drafting and media coverage.

    Alaveteli is only one tool in the toolkit of modern-day transparency and accountability advocates. We believe it to be a potentially powerful tool, but it remains only one tool. Over the next few years, mySociety wants to do the best we can to help groups around the world to use Alaveteli as an effective aid to social change.

    The context for the research is to understand how to position Alaveteli within a wider context of transparency and accountability campaigning. It is a highly action-centric piece of research. Your findings will help us to make decisions about how to help our partners to bring about the changes they want to see in countries outside the UK.

    The research contract in more detail

    Whilst we will want the successful contractor/consultancy to determine key parts of the research process, there are already certain known constraints and activities.

    The contract is for 60-80 working days.
    The contractor/consultancy must be able to start work by May 1st 2014, and produce the primary deliverable by 31st August 2014.
    The work will consist of both a literature review and practitioner interviews to determine what is known about effective and ineffective transparency and accountability based campaigning across a range of countries.
    The primary deliverable for the project is a strategy document that is ready to be consumed and actioned by both mySociety and some of our key Alaveteli-using partners.

    After the primary deliverable is complete, we will ask you to help us work directly with at least one new partner, to help them make more effective use of Alaveteli.

    More details of the research scope will be made available to applicants.

    Minimum Skills and Experience

    The individuals engaged in the work will be either working on a PhD in a topic that relates to transparency and accountability, or will already possess such a qualification.

    How to apply

    Applications for this position have now closed, but thanks for your interest!

    Image credit: Jenny Downing
  6. What is Akoma Ntoso?

    Akoma Ntoso

     

    At the beginning of this year we launched SayIt, our software for bringing transcript publication into the internet age.

    In that post, we briefly mentioned that “we use a cut-down version of the Akoma Ntoso open standard for data import”.

    Well, that’s easy enough to say, but what does it actually mean?

    In a nutshell, if you want to upload transcripts to SayIt, they need to be in a format that SayIt can recognise. It can then transform them into the linked pages that make SayIt so useful.

    Akoma Ntoso is a simple way of showing (for example) which bits of the data are names, which are speeches, etc. – and how they all relate to one another. At first glance, it’s not all that different from HTML, the basic language behind many websites.

    But there are some differences. There are also some interesting ideas behind it, from how it began and where it got its name, to why the world needs another open standard. And what is an open standard, anyway?

    We pinned down Flavio Zeni, one of the people behind Akoma Ntoso’s creation, and he very patiently answered all our questions, even the most basic ones.

    And then, because it seemed silly not to, we put the whole conversation into SayIt. You can read it here.

  7. We’re coming back to Cardiff

    Welsh daffodils Cardiff CastleInterested in civic coding, open data and eDemocracy?

    Then come and join mySociety for a chat, beer and pizza at the Founders Hub in Cardiff on Wednesday 2nd April!

    We’ll be joined by guest speakers:

    Sam Knight: Founder and developer of Your Senedd and Labour Councillor for Cathays.

    Your Senedd was launched in 2011 and aims to make the Welsh Assembly more accessible to the public by providing information on all Assembly Members and publishing all Assembly debates. Sam will be chatting about his motivations behind setting up Your Senedd and the development process.

    Daniele Procida: Daniele manages Cardiff University’s School of Medicine’s website, and the applications that publish it. These include Arkestra and other open-source Python/Django applications.

    Come along to hear Daniele’s talk “The bodiless head of the programmer”.

    He’ll also be around to chat about his work on django CMS and encouraging others to contribute to open source software.

    When: Wednesday 2nd April, drop in any time between 6pm and 9pm
    Where: The Founders Hub, 119 St Mary Street, Cardiff, CF10 1DY
    How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page: http://lanyrd.com/2014/mysocial-2-april/, so we know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.

    NB: Look out for the mySociety hoodie (they look like this, only usually with a person inside). Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

    Photo by [Duncan] (CC)

  8. Back from Myanmar and Malaysia

    mySociety at Shwedagon Pagoda
    Photo shows Paul and Jen working on a budget document (no, really!) using the free wifi available at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

    Here’s a little more from the international team’s trip to Southeast Asia: we’ve already written about Myanmar’s first hackathon, but that wasn’t the only event we were able to attend.

    We were in Yangon at just the right time to be invited to the launch of the Open Myanmar Initiative (technically, this was the launch event for diplomatic circles, which made us feel rather grand).

    At the hackathon, second prize had gone to “Team Garlic” for their election fraud reporting app. So it was great to meet the OMI dev team, and discover that they were, in fact, one and the same. Go Team Garlic!

    The OMI, as well as running a website (currently in beta), have already produced a quantitative analysis on questions asked in Myanmar’s parliament.

    The team has done remarkable work, since the source data is from 22 thick volumes of printed, not digital, records of six parliamentary sessions.

    Open Myanmar Initiative

    We met lots of accomplished, dedicated and interesting people while we were in Myanmar, and we know some of them will be putting bits of our open source code to good use.

    It was good to talk about technical matters too. It’s always informative to hear how people have approached the same kind of problems we’ve encountered (we’ve been running TheyWorkForYou since before 2006, of course, but we also actively work on parliamentary monitoring sites elsewhere in the world too).

    We know from meeting groups like this that the obstacles they face are always a combination of unique problems, entirely specific to their own parliament, and more general difficulties that apply to every jurisdiction on the planet.

    Or to put it another way, some people may go to Myanmar just to look at the pagodas — and although we did that too, even as we did so, at the back of each of our minds was the question, “I wonder if the administrative boundary data is available in KML format for this city?” Um, so… maybe we’re not quite like other tourists.

    After Myanmar, Dave went on to Malaysia to meet up with our friends at the Sinar Project. Sinar and mySociety have been in contact since they started running AduanKu.my (a FixMyStreet instance for Kuala Lumpur) last year and it was marvellous to see them again.

    They’re doing great stuff with their stretched resources, and recently have been working on getting Poplus components into their own parliamentary monitoring work — in fact we’re delighted that they will represented at the PoplusCon conference in Chile at the end of April.

  9. Seeing how your MP voted – now clearer and more comprehensive

    House of Commons Chamber

    Do you know how your MP voted on the issues that matter to you?

    If not, take a look at the new Voting Record section for your MP – accessed easily via TheyWorkForYou.com. Even if you don’t know who your MP is, we’ve made it easy to find their voting activities, and to easy understand their big decisions at a glance.

    We’ve been working hard to increase the coverage of votes (we admit – they had got a bit out of date), as well as to make the experience of reading them much more pleasant. There are now so many bits of analysis we’ve actually split a separate voting page out for each MP, accessible from their main TheyWorkForYou page.

    Now you can see how your MP voted on issues like these:

    • Benefit levels – what goes up or down
    • Foreign policy – including military decisions
    • Social issues – eg gay marriage
    • Constitutional issues – for example, how many MPs there are

    Check your own MP’s voting record here – and don’t forget, if you want to discuss what you find with your MP you can use WriteToThem.com afterwards.

    Keeping things objective

    TheyWorkForYou is a trusted, non-partisan service so we work hard to ensure that these voting lines are unbiased and neutrally worded.

    We’re so keen to ensure that we don’t accidentally introduce unconscious biases, that we try to avoid entirely the business of picking which topics to analyse. Instead, we  prioritise our analysis based on what gets voted on by lots of MPs (accounting for whole party abstentions), not what gets talked about in the news, or what we care about ourselves.

    There are more details about the process in a previous blog post.

    Wording is important

    We  have decided to prioritise clarity over expressing every detailed nuance of votes – this is an intentional choice, reflecting our priority of reaching citizens who have never paid attention to their MPs before. Consequently, vote summaries need to be concise and not use jargon.

    For example, would we be wrong to use the common term ‘bedroom tax’? It’s a phrase that a lot of people would recognise from the press coverage, but the government’s preferred term is ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.

    In the end, we went with reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the “bedroom tax”) – a balance between objectivity and clarity.

    The bottom line

    We’ve made lot of changes to the display for information on MPs recently. So if you have any feedback, good or bad,  please us know what you think by leaving a comment below, or dropping us a line

    Image source. Copyright Catherine Bebbington/Parliamentary Copyright. Licence: (CC BY-NC 2.0)

  10. Our review for Parliament is out today

    Palace of Westminster by Greg Dunlap

    A few months ago we won a contract from Parliament to review its digital service provision (brief advertorial – we can do this kind of work for your organisation too).

    Today Parliament has published that review. Here are a few comments:

    1. It’s great news that the Management Boards in Parliament have agreed to implement the two recommendations contained in the report. Reviews are one thing, actions another.
    2. It’s great that Parliament chose to publish the review at all. They didn’t have to, but they chose to without any prodding. Big thumbs up.
    3. We interviewed a lot of parliamentary staff (dozens and dozens of people). They’re a fantastically dedicated, interesting bunch working under often absurd pressures, and we think Parliament overall would probably have a better reputation if they had as much visibility as the elected members. Time for a docusoap, maybe?
    4. The review contains only two recommendations, even though there were hundreds of good ideas floating around. The reason for such extreme minimalism was to ensure that there was no ambiguity whatsoever about what we believe to be the essential reforms*. Once those reforms are enacted, the ground will be much more fertile for specific digital projects.
    5. My colleagues Ben Nickolls, Dave Whiteland and Mike Thompson did the majority of the real work on this review, conducting interviews and analysing data. My thanks to them for a job well done.

    Parliament is encouraging public feedback on the review. Let them know what you think via NewDigitalService@parliament.uk

    * If you want a digital review filled to the brim with lots of recommendations, try this 25 point action plan from the US federal government instead. Just remember that it was published roughly three years before this.

    Photo by Greg Dunlap (CC)