mySociety is an organisation with many priorities, and they often compete for attention. Right now, we have some time and budget to lavish on TheyWorkForYou. We need your input to help us understand what development we should prioritise for the site.
Note: if you don’t know much about TheyWorkForYou, your opinion still counts! See the foot of this blog post for an overview of the site and its aims.
Some suggested improvements
Below is a list of improvements that other users have suggested, or that we think are desirable. Which improvements would you most like to see – from this list, or based on your own needs?
- Easier sharing via social media If you see a debate you want to share with your Twitter or Facebook buddies, all you’d have to do is click a button. More details
- When your MP voted Letting you know, via email alerts, when your MP has taken part in a vote. More details
- Option to search just headings At the moment, search covers all content of debates, including everything anyone said. This option would allow you to only search headings, meaning that you could be sure the results were entirely focused on your topic. More details
- Tweeting debate headings or future business A Twitter account which would tweet, and link to, every debate in Parliament, or upcoming events. More details
- Signposting of big ‘events’ such as the Budget These are not always easy to find if you don’t know your way around, so we’d make sure the big events were always trumpeted on the site. More details
Great ideas, or utter bunkum? Let us know. You can give us feedback via any of the following methods:
1. Leave a comment under this blog post;
2. Tweet at us on @TheyworkForYou, comment on our Facebook page, or drop us a mail;
3. If you’d like to see the whole list of suggestions and issues, you can do so on our development list at Github (and the ‘more details’ links in the list above go to the issues on there). Note that anyone is welcome to add comments to these issues, or even to create your own (please search first to make sure you’re not duplicating an existing issue). Github may look complex, but it’s easy enough to use – you just need to set up a user account here.
We’re keen to understand whether we’re serving all kinds of users, so it’d also be helpful if you could tell us whether you consider yourself to be someone who knows a bit about Parliament (through work, interest, or experience) or a novice user.
Note – you can see what we’re currently working on here. Some changes were obvious – for example, we’re improving MPs’ individual pages.
What is TheyWorkForYou for?
TheyWorkForYou has been running since 2004. We know why we launched it, though the way you use it may be totally different – and if so, we want to hear about that. Its aim is to give a window into Parliament, for everyone, but including people who may never have previously thought that parliamentary proceedings had anything to do with them.
TheyWorkForYou does a lot of things. It lets you find out who your MP is – if you don’t know – and then it tells you all about them.
It publishes the written record of debates in Parliament, and lets you search it, and link to it easily.
It allows you to set up alerts, so you get an email every your chosen words or phrases are mentioned in Parliament – or every time a particular person speaks.
It publishes future business (there are alerts for that, too), written answers, Public Bill Committees, and more.
So, it does a lot – but we know that it still doesn’t do everything our users request, and it doesn’t neccessarily do everything in the way that they want, either. Some changes are obvious, and we’re working on them – right now, for example, we are improving individual MPs’ pages. But we want your thoughts too.
Photo by Lindsay Bremner (CC)
We’re good friends with the people at Mozilla. Every Wednesday, they welcome us into their London Moz space for our weekly meet-ups. They are champions of empowering possibilities of the web through Open Source software (a world we’re part of too). And they’re all so smart and lovely. So of course we’d been looking forward to this year’s Mozilla Festival for some time.
We had a table at the “Science Fair” on Friday night, where we literally had buckets of sweets (OK, they were little plastic buckets). Tom, our director, and Dave, from our international team, talked about mySociety’s work with anyone who came close. Perhaps people were drawn in by those sweets, or the FixMyStreet demo on the monitor, or even the (new!) stickers we had to give away… but regardless of the lure, we think they all learned a little bit more about how our platforms help empower people’s civic lives: from something as simple as reporting a flickering streetlight, to holding a public authority to account, to monitoring a whole parliament. (That’s FixMyStreet, Alaveteli, and Pombola, if you were wondering).
The Mozilla Festival’s venue was, once again, London’s astonishing Ravensbourne, right next to the O2 Millenium Dome. The setting magnifies the wonder of the event. Those big round windows make it feel like being in a spaceship made of Swiss cheese. The place is so open, and so vertical, that the activity and enthusiasm doesn’t just spread out, it spreads up. There is making and teaching, learning and sharing, going on across nine floors, and it’s easy to drift up and down from one themed space to another.
We met old friends. We got to hang out some more with our Chilean brothers-in-code from Ciudadano Inteligente, and the excellent Gaba from Uruguay’s DATA, together with the good people from the OKFN. We made lots of new friends too. And all this didn’t just happen at the sessions. A lot of serendipitous encounters took place by the Alchemy coffee stations. Or on the stairs (khun Toy and khun Hui — hi!). Or in the Alphabet City party venue, afterwards.
So a big “thank you” to that Fiery Fox, and an enthusiastic high five (yes, there was an unLondonlike amount of enthusiasm on show — possibly because quite a few of the attendees were over from the USA — which it is impossible not to be caught up by) to all the people we met at the event. Dave grinned his way through a wonderful Scratch tutorial from Code Club, met a whole array of cool people, got answers to some nerdy coding questions, and learnt about the awesome Hive learning networks… and lots more things besides. That already describes a great weekend. But beyond that, we hope we might see a few new mySociety-powered sites spring up elsewhere in the world due to sparks that were sparked at mozfest last weekend.
Next week is a really exciting event for us here at mySociety International. You’ve probably heard about it; the Open Government Partnership annual meeting. This coincides with Global Transparency Week and a lot of international friends grouping in London for the first time in a while. It’s going to be good to catch up on interesting projects from other international groups. And don’t forget to come along to our drinks if you’re in town!
A few more things about OGP before I let you know what we’ve been up to over the past month.
In other news:
- Over the past few months we’ve been working on a Pombola website with PMG from South Africa. We’re getting closer to completing this and can’t wait to show you the results.
- We’re also hoping to start work really soon on an Alaveteli install for South Africa, so watch this space!
- Other Alaveteli sites are nearing completion in Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. More on those as they appear… If you have installed Alaveteli, Pombola or FixMyStreet and not had contact with our international team please do drop us a line! We love to hear from you! Along this vein we recently came across Nuvasuparati in Romania and Aduanku in Malaysia. The best kind of surprise!
- We are still offering some days of assistance to people that want help or advice setting up these sites, so do get in touch if this is you. Don’t be shy! We can discuss your ideas and your project and see where we can help.
Where to find us:
25th and 26th October – MozFest, London (Dave W)
30th Oct – 1st November – OGP Annual meeting, London (Paul, Jen)
30th October – mySociety Drinks, London (Paul, Jen, Dave W)
25th November to 30th November – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore (Dave W)
27th to 30th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
If you want a more formal chat, send me an email before the date and I’ll arrange a meet up. Especially for Dave’s Malaysia and Singapore trips as these are arranged expressly with the idea that we will spend time with interested local groups!
As you may know, TheyWorkForYou hasn’t displayed proceedings from the Scottish Parliament for a couple of years – but we’re glad to say that we’ve now fixed that. You can read debates from the main chamber from the Official Report and sign up to alerts from the Scottish Parliament here – just as you can for the UK Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For those who are interested in the ‘whys’, in January of 2011, the Scottish Parliament changed the way that they published the Official Report on their website. This change broke our scraper and parser – that is, the pieces of software that fetch content and turn it into structured data.
mySociety is a small organisation with many priorities, and, because it wasn’t a simple fix, we weren’t able to allocate resources to it. So massive thanks are due to our developer Mark, who made the necessary changes to our code in his own free time.
You can help
There’s still more work to be done to get TheyWorkForYou’s data for Scotland to be as complete as it was before they changed their website, such as restoring written answers. If you think you have the expertise to help with that or any of the other issues for TheyWorkForYou Scotland, then we’d love to hear from you. And there’s still the Welsh Assembly to work on too!
Photo by Shelley Bernstein (CC)
Today is International day of the Girl as nominated by Plan International. The idea of commemorating this day is to highlight the lack of education opportunities for girls around the world.
Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.
Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.
It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved. At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.
Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.
The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.
That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.
Happy International day of the Girl.
Image credits: Blackboard by Audra B | Hands up by Pim Geerts | Malala by United Nations Information Centres
A commission from the Welsh Government has resulted in new functionality for Mapumental, which now has the capability to display multiple points and to produce RAW data compatible with GIS applications. Here’s how it happened.
How accessible is your nearest school, post office, or GP’s surgery? In Wales, that’s not always a simple question: the country’s mountainous landscapes, rural populations, and sometimes infrequent bus services can mean that those without cars are rather cut off from public service provision.
But of course, like any other authority, the Welsh Government has an obligation to quantify just how accessible their services are.
For many years, they have done so using a number of different methods. Some of these involve literally millions of point to point calculations – so, naturally, when Bill Oates, Head of Geography & Technology, Knowledge Services at the Welsh Government, approached Mapumental, he was keen to discover whether we could simplify things.
We were keen to try it, too – plotting multiple points would add a whole new slew of possibilities to Mapumental. Previously, Mapumental has been all about travel from a single point, and this functionality would bring new applications across all kinds of industries and users.
There’s only one way to find out
The sensible way forward was to pick a single service and see what we could do. One of the government’s open data sets showed positioning of all the secondary schools in the country, and would give us a very good indication of how manageable the task would be across all other provisions.
So we set ourselves this aim: to display the shortest transit time to get to any secondary school in Wales, from any point in that country.
This project was not like the map we made for the Fire Protection Association last year, with its postcode input and interactive sliders. It bore more relation to our static maps, but with the additional dimension that the single map would have multiple points plotted on it. Each point would display its own associated journey times, and where travel to one school was quicker than to another, it would have to override the data of the school that was further away.
And here’s the (very pretty) result
Transit times by public transport to secondary schools in Wales, with an arrival time of 9:00am.
Time bands are in 15-minute increments, with red areas being those where schools are accessible within a 15-minute journey (the centres of the red dots therefore also represent the positions of the schools).
Purple areas are those where journey time is between 1.75 and 2 hours, and the colours in between run in the order you see bottom right of the map. White areas (much of which are mountainous and sparsely-populated) are outside the two-hour transit time.
But there’s more – data for GIS
Plotting all the schools on a single map required quite a bit of modification to Mapumental, but there was another important part of the project that also had to be worked on, if the output was to meet all the needs of the Welsh Government.
They needed to be able to export the raw transit time data to their own GIS tools – the tools that they use to feed into official statistics. This allows the transit time data to be combined with other datasets, such as population density, for in-depth analysis.
We added a feature which allows Mapumental to produce what is known as a ‘raster grid’ output – basically, an enormous matrix that gives every pixel on the map a travel time value. To do this, we used the open source GRASS format.
Bill Oates is keen to see where this project can go:
“I’m really excited at the prospect of combining the power of Mapumental with our open data, and fully understanding how accessible Welsh public services are by public transport.”
To him, the benefits are clear:
“Mapumental’s approach is significantly quicker than our current methods, so this work will help save us time as well as providing a more engaging output.
“We hope that future work with mySociety will give us a sustainable approach to calculating the accessibility of local shops, hospitals, post offices and other services on an ongoing basis to help ensure that we’re meeting the needs of our citizens.”
We’re looking to build on our success, and offer this service to others – initially on request but via our API as soon as we can. We’ll keep you posted as to our progress.
You can see multiple-point mapping in action, on our Mapumental Property project – now the tool allows house-hunters to take more than one person’s commute into consideration when choosing where to live.
Who might use Mapumental?
Now that Mapumental can plot transit times from multiple points, and provide RAW data for GIS applications, we have great potential for use by anyone interested in travel and accessibility. That could be in central and local government strategy, town planning, architectural consultancy, transport provision, large enterprises looking to save on parking, or start-ups in the green transport space…to name but a few.
Could Mapumental help you with your mapping needs? If so, please do drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Welsh school bus (bws ysgol) by Aqwis (CC)
September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.
Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.
Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?
Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.
Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.
There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.
If you are inspired to create something to give citizens in your area access to information, then our Alaveteli platform is one way to do it. Please contact us for more information!
Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!
Images under creative commons licence | Fireworks by Joshua Sosrosaputo | Lanterns by Svtherland | Tuderechoasaber screenshot by TuDerechoASaber
WriteToThem allows you to email the people who represent you – even if you don’t know who they are. Input your postcode, and you’ll see all your representatives, from local councillors, to your MP and MEPs. You can then choose who you want to write to, and send off your message.
Never done anything like this before? You’re not alone. In fact, we ask all our users whether this is the first time they have contacted a representative. The number who say ‘yes’ is consistenly over 50%.
Of course, once you know WriteToThem is there, you can use it whenever you need to. Like Kate:
Kate found WriteToThem in the same way that many others do: searches for phrases such as ‘contact my local MP’ bring a lot of users to the site.
I first came across WriteToThem a few years ago when looking for my local MP’s contact details. It was the first time I had contacted an MP, apart from when I wrote a letter to Parliament as part of a secondary school project.
I chose WriteToThem because it had a full list of representatives, as well as a letter template.
The first time I used the site, I got an almost immediate response from my local MP.
That’s great. Of course, every MP is different, and we can’t guarantee that they’ll respond – but it’s good to hear that yours was on the ball. So, what do you contact your representatives about?
I only write to an MP when I feel that public service providers have acted unprofessionally or not helped in any way.
I have written about more support being given to single working parents. I have written about traffic wardens handing out unjustified parking fines to cars with permits displayed, and I have also written about the lack of housing.
Has it been useful?
I have had responses to every letter, and I have also seen results: one of my letters about single working mothers was sent from my local MP to Iain Duncan Smith, and since April there has been more support around child-care.
WriteToThem is a direct and simple way to contact representatives. The site is easy to use, and every time I have used it I have had a response from the MP either by letter or email.
It’s a good way to get your opinions heard by politicians, and a good way to encourage positive change within local and national politics.
Thanks very much to Kate for telling us how she uses WriteToThem.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
In a break from tradition, I’m going to start this blog with an appeal.
We on the international team at mySociety are trying to improve the install process and documentation for all of our internationalised websites. Since we built the original sites, we’re not the best people to ask on what needs to be improved, as I’m sure you understand. If you’re interested in helping us out doing this I’ve created two surveys, you’ll find them at the end of this post! Or email me at email@example.com so I can ask you a few questions. On to other exciting things…
In site news we are working on Alaveteli sites for Uganda and Italy. Both of these should be finished and ready for launch soon, thanks to our developers and of course our partners for showing interest.
We’ve also been helping set up a FixMyStreet site in Cape Verde and a demo FixMyStreet site for Whypoll in India. While these two sites are being installed on mySociety’s servers, three people from Singapore and two people from South Africa are also working on FixMyStreet for their countries, as self installs.
And in Pombola news we are helping with websites in South Africa, Zimbabwe and are hoping to work with a team in Malawi.
But these are just the most recent sites! People are working on sites in Uruguay, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and a number of other countries. Follow our twitter @mysocietyintl to find out more.
We’d love to help you set up your own site, or just give you advice on why sites like these can be useful. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how!
Finally, we’re going to be attending a few conferences and we’d love to meet up with you to chat and get to know you. You can find us at:
15th to 19th September – OKCon, Geneva (Jen and Dave)
27th to 28th September – OverTheAir, Bletchley Park (Dave)
30th Sept to 3rd October – African Entrepreneurship Summit, Mauritius (Paul)
25th to 27th October – Mozfest, London (Dave)
30th October to 1st November – OGP London (Paul and Jen)
27th to 29th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
Please do drop by and say hello!
By the way, if you are hosting a conference and want us to come along and speak (for free! We don’t charge, and a lot of the time we try to pay our own way!) please drop a note to email@example.com . We love to connect with new people and would be delighted to be involved!
As promised, here are the survey links. If you have ever installed or had us create one of our websites for you please take a look at them and fill them in.
One more thing, as a p.s. Hopefully these “What we’ve been up to” updates will soon come to you in video format! Be kind to me if the first one is awkward!
Hand photo by Alban Gonzalez | Android photo by Tiago A Pereira | Bike photo by Raul Lieberwirth | Thank you for making your content creative commons distribution.
WhatDoTheyKnow is mySociety’s Freedom of Information site. You can use it to make FOI requests, and it publishes them – and the responses you receive – for everyone to see.
You might think that making a Freedom of Information request is something that only journalists or investigators do. But actually, one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s aims is to show that anyone can access this right. If there’s something you want to find out, and the information is held by a public body, WhatDoTheyKnow makes it very easy for you to request it.
WhatDoTheyKnow is mySociety’s most-visited site, with around 100,000 people viewing the information on it every week. Not all of those people make FOI requests, but they are all benefiting from the information uncovered by those who do.
And who are those ‘people who do’?
Jonathan works for a digital company in Brighton, as a project manager. He first became aware of WhatDoTheyKnow at a local conference on open data in the city.
I make FOI requests as a Brighton citizen. Mostly I ask about data that is held by the council. For example, I’ve recently made requests about parking revenue, council pay levels – that sort of thing.
These are topics that are of clear interest to everyone in the city – but why does he make these requests?
It is about getting the data into the public domain to start an informed debate.
Public authorities don’t always provide data that is requested (and not always because they are being difficult, or inefficient – there are a number of situations where they are not obliged to). So, has Jonathan received the information he has asked for?
The most important data that I have asked the council to release has been refused. But I am still hopeful they will eventually release it.
All of mySociety’s websites hope to lower the barriers to civic participation; we hope that we encourage people to access channels of communication that they may never have previously considered open to them.
In Jonathan’s case, he says that if WhatDoTheyKnow wasn’t available, he would have made his requests by email – he’s already switched on to the existence and potential of the FOI act. But, he says, WhatDoTheyKnow is “a fantastic resource”.
When information is requested via email, it stays almost entirely hidden from view, unless the recipient chooses to publicise it. But on WhatDoTheyKnow, information becomes fully visible to everyone – all part of starting that ‘informed debate’ that Jonathan mentioned.
Thanks very much to Jonathan for telling us how he uses WhatDoTheyKnow.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.