One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.
This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.
No Local Hansards
Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.
At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.
We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.
The State of the Art Still Needs You
First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.
We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.
But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.
It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable
Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.
Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.
Get in touch
The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.
And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.
In the nine days our Fix Before the Freeze campaign has been running, there’s been a 47% increase in reports on FixMyStreet.com. Thank you to everyone who has spread the word or remembered to use the site to get something fixed.
As you may remember, the campaign encourages you to report problems such as broken streetlights or potholes before winter comes. It’s great to see this start to happen, and we hope you’ll experience the benefits once the cold weather takes grip. Hey, you might even find that the warm glow of community spirit cuts a few quid from your fuel bills…
Meanwhile, we’re sure there are still plenty of pavements, roads and amenities that could do with a patch-up before winter. So if there’s a gap on a notice board near you, don’t forget our print-outs and resources here. How about printing out a few and leaving them in your local library, cafe, or community centre?
You may already be aware of our website FixMyStreet.com, which helps you report common street problems – such as potholes and uneven pavements – to the relevant local council. This year, we thought we’d give people a gentle nudge before winter comes.
Many of the 1,000 issues which the site deals with every week are of the sort which are far better seen to before the big freeze. Potholes only worsen with the frost, and no-one wants a dodgy streetlight once the long dark nights are here.
How to join Fix Before the Freeze
- Check for problems Will your walk home from work tonight be in the dark? Look out for areas that could be better lit or paths that might cause people to stumble in the dark.
- Report it If you see something that is better fixed before the freeze, now’s the time to let your council know. It only take a minute at FixMyStreet.com.
- Spread the word We’ve created the image above as a website icon, flier, and poster. Follow the links at the foot of this post to download them, or use the code if you’d prefer to link back. Why not put one on your blog, hand them out at work, or stick one in your window? Please spread the word among friends and family too.
- Spread the word further We’d be grateful for mentions on your preferred social media hang-out (you can use the #FB4TF hashtag).
- Keep in touch You can ‘like’ us on Facebook here, or follow us on Twitter here.
Let’s get our local communities as safe as they can be, before the cold weather hits.
Click on each thumbnail to be taken to the actual-size resource, then right click or ctrl+click to save a copy to your hard drive.
A4 sheet of fliers to print out:
Poster to print out:
Badge for your blog or website (165×165 pixels):
(If you’d like a larger image, feel free to save the one at the top of this post).
HTML for inserting the badge onto your site without downloading – just copy and paste the below into your HTML editor:
<a href=”http://www.mysociety.org/?p=4790″ title=”Find out more about Fix Before the Freeze from FixMyStreet.com”><Img alt=”Fix Before the Freeze – report those dangerous potholes and broken streetlights before winter hits” src=”http://blogs.dev.mysociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/fixbeforethefreezebadge165.gif”></a>
It’s been a while since we updated you on the progress of our next major project, FixMyTransport, but we’re still working hard behind the scenes. As you may recall, FixMyTransport will deal with public transport problems – delayed trains, vandalised stations, overcrowded buses, you name it. It’ll put problems in the public arena, while also reporting them directly to the relevant transport operator. Read more about the project here.
We will shortly be arriving at our final destination
Things are going to get exciting very soon. As launch date approaches, we’ll be starting a closed beta (mid July), rapidly followed by a full open public beta launch (end of July). During the closed beta we want to get as much feedback as possible from future users of the site, as well as pressure groups, transport operators, and anyone else who has anything valuable to contribute.
If you would like to be invited to beta test, and weren’t one of our alpha testers, please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. Alpha testers will, of course, be invited to test again.
Mind the (data) gaps
We got extremely useful feedback from our alpha testers, and a wealth of crowdsourced data from our community. Thanks to their efforts we now have contact details for the operators of about 50% of the routes in the UK. However, this leaves a lot of operators where we don’t know how to get in touch.
We really need your help to get them! If you can spare a few minutes, visit our spreadsheet and see if you can fill in any of the missing details.
The more contact details we can get hold of, the better experience FixMyTransport will offer to our users. As well as publishing passengers’ reports on the site, FixMyTransport sends them directly to the operators too, helping to get the issue fixed.
So, we especially need the email addresses for operators’ customer services departments. Finding these may be as simple as visiting the operators’ websites, or it may require a bit of sleuth-work on your part. If advanced Googling gets you nowhere, we’ve found that simply phoning head office can get results.
Incidentally, the main operators are near the top of the sheet – those are the ones that will benefit the most users, although obviously the nearer completion we get, the better.
You’ll notice that the spreadsheet now includes a non-obligatory column for your name: this is to offer a small incentive. If you want to, tag your entries and at the end we’ll be offering goodies to the top contributors. Depending on your preference, this might be one of our highly sought-after mySociety hooded tops (they’re snuggly!), or a chance to become more involved in the project.
Those who helped in the first iteration, please note that although this sheet looks different, your details have been retained and indeed have been extremely useful as we build the site. Also - if you have already been a major contributor during our previous rounds of testing and data collecting, please holler so that we can give you proper credit.
Hold tight, please
Not long now… we hope you’re as excited as we are.
It is a cliché for any manager to say that they are proud of their team, and mildly nausea-inducing to listen to anyone who goes on about it too long. However, the purpose of this post is to argue that the world would benefit from a new kind of post-graduate Masters programme – something that is hard to do without describing the virtues of the type of people who should come out of it. So please bear with me, and keep a sick bag to one hand.
mySociety’s core development team is very, very good. But they’re not just good at turning out code. Louise Crow, for example, has a keen eye for things that will and won’t make a difference in the offline world, as well as the skills to build virtually whatever she can think of. And the exact same thing is true of the whole coding team: Duncan, Matthew, Edmund and Dave in the current team, plus Francis, Chris and Angie before them.
mySociety didn’t give these people their raw talent, nor the passion to be involved with projects that make a difference. What it has given them, though, is the chance to spend a lot of time talking to each other, learning from their triumphs and their mistakes, and listening to users. This space and peer-contact made them into some of the world’s few genuine experts in the business of conceptualising and then delivering digital projects that deliver new kinds of civic and democratic benefits.
So, why am I sitting here unashamedly blowing my colleagues trumpets like this? (I don’t have these skills, after all!) Well, in order to point out that there are quite simply far too few people like this out there.
Too few experts
“Too few for what?” you may well ask. Too few for any country that wants to be a really great place to live in the 21st century, is my answer.
There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.
What they can do for an organistion
Such people can tell the management which waves of technology are hype, and which bring real value, because they care more about results than this week’s craze, or a flashy presentation. They can build small or medium sized solutions to an organisation’s problems with their bare hands, because they’re software engineers. They can contract for larger IT solutions without getting ripped off or sold snake oil. And they can tell the top management of organisations how those organisations look to a digital native population, because they come from that world themselves.
And why they don’t
Except such experts can’t do any of these things for not-for-profit or public institutions: they can’t help because they’re not currently being employed by such bodies. There are two reasons why not, reasons which just may remind you of a chicken and an egg.
First, such institutions don’t hire this kind of expert because they don’t know what they are missing – they’re completely outside of the known frame of reference. Before you get too snarky about dumb, insular institutions, can you honestly say you would try to phone a plumber if you had never heard that they existed? Or would you just treat the water pouring through the ceiling as normal?
Second, these institutions don’t hire such experts because there just aren’t enough on the market: mySociety is basically the main fostering ground in UK for new ones, and we greedily keep hold of as many of our people as possible. Hands off my Dave!
Which leads me to the proposal, a proposal to create more such experts for public and non-profit institutions, and to make me feel less guilty about mySociety hoarding the talent that does exist.
Describing the Masters in Public Technology
The proposal is this: there should be a new Masters level course at at least one university which would take people with the raw skill and the motivation and puts them on a path to becoming experts in the impactful use of digital technologies for social purposes. Here’s how I think it might work.
In the first instance, the course would only be for people who could already code well (if all went well, we could develop a sister course for non-coders later on). Over the course of a single year it would teach its students a widely varied curriculum, covering the structure and activities of government, campaigns, NGOs and companies. It would involve dissecting more and less impactful digital services and campaigns, like biology students dissect frogs, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It would involve teaching the basics of social science methodologies, such as how to look for statistical significance, and good practice in privacy management. It would encourage good practice in User Experience design, and challenge people to think about how serious problems could be solved playfully. It would involve an entire module on explaining the dos and don’t of digital technology to less-literate decision makers. And most important, it would end with a ‘thesis’ that would entail the construction of some meaningful tool, either alone or in collaboration with other students and external organisations.
I would hope we could get great guest lecturers on a wide range of topics. My fantasy starter for 10 would include names as varied in their disciplines as Phil Gyford, David Halpern, Martha Lane Fox, Ben Goldacre, Roz Lemieux, William Perrin, Jane McGonigal, Denise Wilton, Ethan Zuckerman, as well as lots of people from in and around mySociety itself.
What would it take?
I don’t know the first thing about how universities go about creating new courses, so having someone who knew about that step up as a volunteer would be a brilliant start!
Next, it would presumably take some money to make it worth the university’s time. I would like to think that there might be some big IT company that would see the good will to be gleaned from educating a new generation of socially minded, organisation-reforming technologists.
Third, we’d actually need a university with a strong community of programmers attached, willing and ready to do something different. It wouldn’t have to be in the UK, either, necessarily.
Then it would need a curriculum, and teaching, which I would hope mySociety could lead on, but which would doubtless best be created and taught in conjunction with real academics. We’d need some money to cover our time doing this, too.
And finally it would need some students. But my hunch is that if we do this right, the problem will probably be fending people off with sticks.
I’m genuinely not sure – I hope this post sparks some debate, and I hope it provokes some people to go “Yeah, me too”. Maybe you could tell me what I should do next?
I was just talking to someone in a local council about the fact that they’d opened up the location of 27,000 streetlights in their council area. They wanted to know if FixMyStreet could incorporate them so that problem reports could be more accurately attached.
This conversation reminded me that we’ve had an informal wish list of geodata for FixMyStreet for some time. What we need is more data that lets us send problems to the correct entity when the problem is not actually a council responsibility.
I’m just posting these up to see if anyone knows a guy who knows a girl who knows a dog who knows how to get hold of any of these datasets. In some vector data format, if possible, please!
- Canals and responsible authorities
- Supermarkets (esp car parks) and responsible companies
- Network Rail’s land
- Council owned land
- Land and roads controlled by the Highways agency
- Shopping malls
- National parks
- BT phone boxes (the original problem which inspired FixMyStreet)
So, do you know someone who might know someone who can help us improve FixMyStreet? And guess what, if we do add this to our web services, you’ll probably be able to query them too.
Ever got a problem fixed by reporting it on FixMyStreet? Written to your representative via WriteToThem? Here’s an opportunity to pay the favour forward to someone stranded on a wet Wednesday by the non-arrival of the number seven bus.
We’ve reached the point in FixMyTransport development where we can start asking for your help. We need to fill in the information we’ll use to report people’s transport problems to the companies that run bus and train routes. If you have five minutes to spare, please spend them adding a contact email address or two for your local bus companies to this spreadsheet:
…then you can bask in the glory of a karmic balance restored*.
* Will also work if you accidentally ran over a kitten on your way to work this morning.
FixMyTransport is the most challenging project mySociety has ever tried to build. It’s so ambitious that we’re taking the unusual move of breaking off part of the problem and stress-testing it in the form of the new mini-site Brief Encounters, which has gone live today. It was built by Louise Crow, or Crowbot, as we know her, with design support from Dave Whiteland.
Brief Encounters is not, as the name might suggest, mySociety’s long awaited attempt at a dating site. Instead it’s a place where people can share whimsical stories about unusual things that happened them them, or other people, on public transport. We hope you’ll have a go, read some examples and then contribute your own.
You might be thinking that a whimsical story site doesn’t sound very mySocietyish – and you’d be right. Brief Encounters is actually a technology test-bed to help us crack a new design and data problem: how do you make it as easy as possible for users to pinpoint a specific bus stop, or train route, or a ferry port, as easily as possible? There are over 300,000 such beasties, and nobody has ever really tried to build an interface that makes it easy to find each one quickly and reliably.
So, what we want from you, dear readers, is three fold. We want:
- Stories – the more hilarious or sob-inducing the better
- Feedback on the user experience – how can we make finding a route or node easier?
- Feedback on any data problems you find, ie “My bus stop is missing” – we’re going to have to patch our data with your help, there’s just no other way
For those of you tech minded, the project is built in Ruby and uses the NaPTAN dataset of stations, bus stops and ferry terminals, the National Public Transport Gazetteer database of towns and settlements in the UK, and the National Public Transport Data Repository of sample public transport journeys, from 2008. The first two datasets are free of charge, and the third one mySociety pays for.
Lastly, kudos must go to the hyper-imaginative Nicky Getgood who suggested we collect stories on FixMyTransport, as well as problem reports.
The two days leading up to election day are a hugely important time for less politically-obsessive voters. The parties know that a lot of people are only starting to seriously think how to vote today and tomorrow, and TheyWorkForYou saw its biggest spike ever the day before the election, way back in 2005.
This means it’s a super-important time to get trustworthy, non-partisan information in front of as many people as possible. And you can help by doing the following simple things:
1. Go to your constituency page on the TheyWorkForYou Election Quiz and take a good look at the answers. Is there anything surprising in the answers? Has anyone failed to respond who really shouldn’t? Is there anything funny in the responses? Make a couple of notes about what you think are the most interesting findings.
2. If you know the name of your local papers or radio stations, try to Google for the email or phone number of the news desk. If you don’t know the names, try sticking the name of your nearest town into a media database like this, to get a phone number or email address.
3. If possible, you should start your pitch by phoning rather than emailing. If you get a phone number for a news desk, give them a bell and say that you’re a volunteer from “The country’s largest non-partisan election information project”, and ask for the email of a specific person who might be interested in a story about what local candidates are saying.
4. Once you have an email address of a specific journalist, compose a locally specific email for them, along the following lines:
I’m a resident of Z constituency, and this election I’ve been one of 6000 volunteers helping to build an unprecedented project to get candidates across the country to go on the record, in conjunction with the website TheyWorkForYou.com. It’s a strictly non-partisan project, aimed at giving voters a really clear, spin-free view of what their candidates stand for. I’d really appreciate it if you could give it some coverage before election day.
In my constituency, N candidates have completed our survey. From this we can see some quite interesting things, namely:
* Candidate A thinks…
* Candidate B thinks…
Would you be so kind as to print a story encouraging people to check our their candidates via TheyWorkForYou.com, and mentioning some of the highlights I’ve included?
all the best,
Your name, email, phone”
5. An hour after you send the email through, give the journalist a call back to see if they need any more help.
6. If you do this, please leave us a comment on this post so we know who’s had a go!
Thank you for helping spread some non-partisan information this election time, and enjoy the election…
In January last year, at our yearly staff and volunteers retreat, we decided that TheyWorkForYou should do something special for the general election. We decided that we wanted to gather information on where every candidate in every seat stood on what most people would think were the biggest issues, not just nationally but locally too.
Our reasons for setting this ambitious goal were two fold. First, we thought that pinning people down to a survey that didn’t reward rhetorical flourishes would help the electorate cut through the spin that accompanies all elections. But even more important was to increase our ability to hold new MPs to account: we want users of TheyWorkForYou in the future to be able to see how Parliamentary voting records align with campaign statements.
This meant doing quite a lot of quite difficult things:
- Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
- Working out how to contact them.
- Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
- Developing a balanced set of national issues.
- Sending the candidates surveys, and chasing them up.
The Volunteer Army
This has turned out to be a massive operation, requiring the creation of the independent Democracy Club set up by the amazing new volunteers Seb Bacon and Tim Green, and an entire candidate database site YourNextMP, built by another new volunteer Edmund von der Burg. Eventually we managed to get at least one local issue in over 80% of constituencies, aided by nearly 6000 new volunteers spread from Lands End to John O’Groats. There’s at least one volunteer in every constituency in Great Britain, and in all but three in Northern Ireland. Volunteers have done more than just submit issues, they’ve played our duck house game (you can still win!) to help gather thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and postal addresses.
What we ended up with is a candidate survey that is different for every constituency – 650 different surveys, in short. The survey always contains the same 15 national issues (chosen by a politically balanced panel held at the Institute for Government) and then anything between zero and ten local issues. We’ve seen everything from cockle protection to subsidies for ferries raised – over 3000 local issues were submitted, before being painstakingly moderated, twice, by uber-volunteers checking for for spelling, grammar, obvious bias and straightforward interestingness (it isn’t really worth asking candidates if they are in favour of Good Things and against Bad Things).
In the last couple of days we’ve started to send out the first surveys – we’ve just passed 1000 emails, and there are at least 2000 still to be sent.
We’re aiming to release the data we are gathering on candidates positions on 30th April. We’ll build a nice interface to explore it, but we also hope that others will do something with what we are expecting to be quite a valuable dataset.
Candidates are busy people, so how do we get their attention? Happily, some candidates are choosing to answer the survey just because TheyWorkForYou has a well know brand in the political world, but this has limits.
The answer is that we are going to ask Democracy Club, and it’s army of volunteers to help. We’ll shortly roll out a tool that will tell volunteers which of their candidates haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the record , and provide a range of ways for them to push for their candidates to fill it in.
It would be a lie to say we’re confident we’ll get every last candidate. But we are confident we can make sure that no candidate can claim they didn’t see, or didn’t know it was important to their constituents. And every extra voice we have makes that more likely.
Join Democracy Club today