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.
Thanks to everyone who came to the inaugural mySociety Hack Night – and thanks too to our hosts, the Open Data Institute for such a great space to work in.
Topics ranged from community-building in post-conflict societies, to mountain rescue in Wales, via an extended front-end for WriteToThem which would put campaigns in context. It really showed what a lot of exciting ideas there are, just waiting for someone to launch into them.
We’ll be running these nights every Wednesday: we’re currently booking for the following dates, 6:00 -9:00 pm.
Places are restricted, so drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be sure of getting in. All you need is a little coding experience and a laptop.
We’d also like to start a conversation in the comments below, so that like-minded folk can think about hacking together. If you’re looking for people to help you with an idea, or if you see something you like the look of, leave a note below and try to synchronise which nights you’ll be attending.
Photo by Being Focal (CC)
Since its launch in 2005, WriteToThem has always covered all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Northern Ireland Assembly was the first body added to TheyWorkForYou after the UK Parliament, in late 2006. So whilst we certainly have not ignored Northern Ireland, it had always been an irritant of mine (and a cause of infrequent emails) that FixMyStreet only covered Great Britain.
This was due to the way it had originally been funded and set up, but those issues were in the past, due to a myriad of changes both internal and external, and it was now more a case of being able to find the resources to implement the necessary work. Late last year, mySociety worked with Channel 4 on the website for their series of programmes on The Great British Property Scandal. This used, in part, code similar to FixMyStreet to let people report empty homes, and it was required to work in all parts of the UK. So as part of that process, code was written or generalised that let aspects of FixMyStreet like the maps and place name lookup work for Northern Ireland locations.
It’s taken a few months since then to allocate the time, but we’ve now been able to take the code written back then, add various other bits, and incorporate it into FixMyStreet – which now covers the 26 councils of Northern Ireland, and the central Roads Service. Issues such as potholes, graffiti, and broken street lighting can be reported to Antrim or Newry and Mourne as easily as Aberdeen or Wyre Forest, and just as in the rest of the UK you can sign up for alerts based around your location or to your council.
All of us at mySociety love the fact that there are so many interesting new civic and democratic websites and apps springing up across the whole world. And we’re really keen to do what we can to help lower the barriers for people trying to build successful sites, to help citizens everywhere.
Today mySociety is unveiling MapIt Global, a new Component designed to eliminate one common, time-consuming task that civic software hackers everwhere have to struggle with: the task of identifying which political or administrative areas cover which parts of the planet.
As a general user this sort of thing might seem a bit obscure, but you’ve probably indirectly used such a service many times. So, for example, if you use our WriteToThem.com to write to a politician, you type in your postcode and the site will tell you who your politicians are. But this website can only do this because it knows that your postcode is located inside a particular council, or constituency or region.
Today, with the launch of MapIt Global , we are opening up a boundaries lookup service that works across the whole world. So now you can lookup a random point in Russia or Haiti or South Africa and find out about the administrative boundaries that surround it. And you can browse and inspect the shapes of administrative areas large and small, and perform sophisticated lookups like “Which areas does this one border with?”. And all this data is available both through an easy to use API, and a nice user interface.
We hope that MapIt Global will be used by coders and citizens worldwide to help them in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Our own immediate use case is to use it to make installations of the FixMyStreet Platform much easier.
We’re able to offer this service only because of the fantastic data made available by the amazing OpenStreetMap volunteer community, who are constantly labouring to make an ever-improving map of the whole world. You guys are amazing, and I hope that you find MapIt Global to be useful to your own projects.
The developers who made it possible were Mark Longair, Matthew Somerville and designer Jedidiah Broadbent. And, of course, we’re also only able to do this because the Omidyar Network is supporting our efforts to help people around the world.
From Britain to the World
For the last few years we’ve been running a British version of the MapIt service to allow people running other websites and apps to work out what council or constituency covers a particular point – it’s been very well used. We’ve given this a lick of paint and it is being relaunched today, too.
MapIt Global is also the first of The Components, a series of interoperable data stores that mySociety will be building with friends across the globe. Ultimately our goal is to radically reduce the effort required to launch democracy, transparency and government-facing sites and apps everywhere.
If you’d like to install and run the open source software that powers MapIt on your own servers, that’s cool too – you can find it on Github.
About the Data
The data that we are using is from the OpenStreetMap project, and has been collected by thousands of different people. It is licensed for free use under their open license. Coverage varies substantially, but for a great many countries the coverage is fantastic.
The brilliant thing about using OpenStreetMap data is that if you find that the boundary you need isn’t included, you can upload or draw it direct into Open Street Map, and it will subsequently be pulled into MapIt Global. We are planning to update our database about four times a year, but if you need boundaries adding faster, please talk to us.
If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how we built MapIt Global, see this blog post from Mark Longair.
Commercial Licenses and Local Copies
MapIt Global and UK are both based on open source software, which is available for free download. However, we charge a license fee for commercial usage of the API, and can also set up custom installs on virtual servers that you can own. Please drop us a line for any questions relating to commercial use.
As with any new service, we’re sure there will be problems that need sorting out. Please drop us an email, or tweet us @mySociety.
Ah, summer: walks in the park, lazing in the long grass, and the sound of chirping crickets – all overlaid with the clatter of a thousand keyboards.
That may not be your idea of summer, but it’s certainly the ways ours is shaping up. We’re participating in Google’s Summer of Code, which aims to put bright young programmers in touch with Open Source organisations, for mutual benefit.
What do the students get from it? Apart from a small stipend, they have a mentored project to get their teeth into over the long summer hols, and hopefully learn a lot in the process. We, of course, see our code being used, improved and adapted – and a whole new perspective on our own work.
Candidates come from all over the world – they’re mentored remotely – so for an organisation like mySociety, this offers a great chance to get insight into the background, politics and technical landscape of another culture. Ideas for projects that may seem startlingly obvious in, say, Latin America or India would simply never have occurred to our UK-based team.
This year, mySociety were one of the 180 organisations participating. We had almost 100 enquiries, from countries including Lithuania, India, Peru, Georgia, and many other places. It’s a shame that we were only able to take on a couple of the many excellent applicants.
We made suggestions for several possible projects to whet the applicants’ appetite. Mobile apps were popular, in particular an app for FixMyTransport. Reworking WriteToThem, and creating components to complement MapIt and PopIt also ranked highly.
It was exciting to see so many ideas, and of course, hard to narrow them down.
In the end we chose two people who wanted to help improve our nascent PopIt service. PopIt will allow people to very quickly create a public database of politicians or other figures. No technical knowledge will be needed – where in the past our code has been “Just add developers”, this one is “Just add data”. We’ll host the sites for others to build on.
Our two successful applicants both had ideas for new websites that would use PopIt for their datastore, exactly the sort of advanced usage we hope to encourage. As well as making sure that PopIt actually works by using it they’ll both be creating transparency sites that will continue after their placements ends. They’ll also have the knowledge of how to set up such a site, and in our opinion that is a very good thing.
We hope to bring you more details as their projects progress, throughout the long, hot (or indeed short and wet) summer.
PS: There is a separate micro-blog where we’re currently noting some of the nitty gritty thoughts and decisions that go into building something like PopIt. If you want to see how the project goes please do subscribe! The Components mailing list is also a good way of staying in touch.
Top image by Elaine Millan, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
At mySociety we like transparency – it’s baked into most of our projects.
TheyWorkForYou attempts to make it easier to find out what your MP has been doing in Parliament. WhatDoTheyKnow tries to make it easier to find out what’s going on inside other public bodies. FixMyStreet and the upcoming FixMyTransport also use transparency to help get problems resolved.
We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.
Transparency can be useful because it means people outside an organisation can make critical, constructive suggestions about how you can improve, and it lowers the odds that people in one part of your own organisation will be ignorant of the activities of people in other parts.
To that end we commissioned Tobias Escher of the Oxford Internet Institute to conduct detailed analysis into two of our major websites – TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.
We were not highly prescriptive in our instructions, and we certainly didn’t ask Tobias to ‘discover’ pre-determined findings. All we did was ask Tobias to find out who was coming to the sites, what they were doing, and whether or not the sites could be considered to be succeeding. We didn’t do it for a PR stunt: we did it so we could learn from our mistakes, and so that we could share those learnings with others who might benefit.
His detailed, quantitative analysis holds the sites up to mySociety’s own stated aims, for the first time. And we’ve published both documents, in full, below.
Swings and Roundabouts
It was great to discover that we have, indeed, attained some of our goals by running these sites. For example, one of the reasons we set up TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem was to make representatives accessible to people who were newcomers to the democratic process. It was therefore heartening to read that 60% of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives.
But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35. These figures and many more are available within these highly readable papers – Tobias did a terrific job in gathering and analysing a huge amount of data, and then making it easy to understand.
These reports are rich with data, from how visitor numbers boomed during the MPs’ expenses scandal to which MPs most people sign up to receive alerts about. You can also read how a budget airline almost brought a site to its knees in 2007; what part Joanna Lumley plays in our history; and how many visits to TheyWorkForYou actually come from within Parliament itself.
TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem have inspired many people around the world to set up similar (and not so similar) sites inspired by the vision of using the Internet to lower barriers to democracy. However, until now we’ve never seen a really clear-eyed assessment of what seems to work, and what doesn’t.
If you’re at all interested in using the Internet to engage people with democratic systems, Tobias Escher’s excellent research papers will make a compelling read. Thank you Toby!
Download Tobias Escher’s research report on WriteToThem.com
or TheyWorkForYou research report by Tobias Escher
…and do come back and tell us what you found interesting.
We hope to publish two evaluation reports like this at the start of each new year from now on. Next year’s sites will probably be FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow. Do get in touch if you’d like to input!
The Hansard Society have just published a report entitled MPs Online: Connecting with Constituents. I’m only going to talk about one part, the part that mentions the mySociety project WriteToThem in a section on MPs’ use of email.
We’re surprised and disappointed to see our methodology for collecting data on how well MPs respond to constituency mail being called “unreliable”, especially from a paper that makes a number of simple mistakes of its own in just a few lines on one page.
- On page 5, they state that WriteToThem has been “tracking responsiveness to emails via their website for three years”. Most importantly for the theme of the report, we don’t just send emails – we send faxes to a number of MPs (and other representatives) who do not accept or want messages via email.
- The figures given for survey responses in the table are backwards; 2007 and 2005′s figures should be interchanged – how could we get more survey responses than messages (again, not necessarily emails) sent?
- They claim there is “no quantification of the response categories provided” – the raw data used to automatically generate these categories is given in the adjacent column (“very high” simply means a response percentage of 80% or more, for example; our code is all open source).
- We exclude MPs with very small sample sizes, and take a range of steps to make sure the data is not abused.
- We have four years of statistics now, not three; our stats for 2008 were published nearly six months ago.
The Hansard Society, to the best of my knowledge, never got in touch with us to request any clarification or ask about our data or methodology, which we would have been more than happy to supply.
Over the last weekend of November 2009 a group of 21 mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees went to a house outside of Bristol to wrestle with the question of what mySociety should build over the next 12 months. This was the fourth time we’ve done it, and these meetings have become a crucial part of our planning. This year, we were talking not just about what new features to add to our current sites, but also about the possibility of building an entirely new website for the first time in a couple of years. The discussions were lively and passionate because we know we have a lot to live up to: not only is our last major new site (WhatDoTheyKnow) likely to cross the 1 million unique visitors threshold this year, but we understood that there were people and organisations who weren’t there who would be counting on us to set the bar high.
A chunk of the weekend involved vetting the 227 project ideas that were proposed via our Call for Proposals. I’m going to write a separate post on our thoughts about that process, but if you look at the list below you may spot things that were submitted in that call.
One nice innovation that helped us whittle down our ideas from unmanageable to manageable numbers was a pairwise comparison game to help us prioritise ideas, build custom for the occasion by the wonderful and statistically talented Mark Longair. In other words, we used the technique that powers KittenWar.com to help decide our key strategic priorities for the next year: after all , if we don’t, who will?
By the end of the weekend we had not battened everything down – there are too many uncertainties around how much time we will have, and some key ideas that need more speccing. However, we were able to put various things into different buckets, marked according to size and degree of certainty. So here goes:
1. Things which were decided at the last retreat, which we are definitely building, and which (mostly) need doing before next year’s stuff starts getting built
- A top level page for each bill on TheyWorkForYou
- Future business (ie the calendar) for events in the House of Commons, including a full set of alerting options.
- Video clips on MP pages on TheyWorkForYou
- Epicly ambitious election data gathering and quiz building with the lovely volunteers at DemocracyClub
2. Small new things that we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus
- Publish a standard that councils can use to post problems like potholes in their databases to FixMyStreet and other similiar sites.
- Template requests in WhatDoTheyKnow so that users are strongly encouraged to put in requests that are well structured.
- After the next general election, email new MPs with various bits of info of interest to them including their new login to HearFromYourMP, their page on TheyWorkForYou, explanation of how WriteToThem protects them from spam and abuse, a double check that their contact details are correct, and a introduction to the fact that we record their correspondance responsiveness and voting records.
- Add to WhatDoTheyKnow descriptions about what kind of public authority a specific entity is (ie ‘school’, ‘council’) and the information they are likely to hold if FOIed.
- Show divisions (parliamentary votes) properly on debate pages on TheyWorkForYou, ie show the results of a vote on the same page as the debate where the issue was discussed, with full party breakdowns on each division.
- Add “How to benefit from this site” page on TheyWorkForYou, inspired by OpenCongress.org
- Help Google index TheyWorkForYou faster by creating a sitemap.xml file that is dynamically updated.
- Using the data we expect to have from DemocracyClub’s volunteers, send a press release about every new MP and to all relevent local newspapers
- Incorporate a council GeoRSS problem feed into FMS
3. Slighty more time consuming things we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus
- 1 day per month developer time that customer support guru Debbie Kerr gets to allocate as she see fit.
- Premium account feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to hide requests so that journalists and bloggers can still get scoops and then share their correspondance later.
- Add Select Committees to TheyWorkForYou, including email alerts on calls for evidence.
- Take professional advice on how to handle PR around the election
4. Much more time consuming things and things around which there is less consensus. NB – We do not currently have the resources to do everything on this list next year – it is an ambitious target list.
- Primary New site: TBA in a new post
- Add a new queue feature to WhatDoTheyKnow so that users can write requests, then table them for comments from other users and expert volunteers before they are sent to the public authority
- Relaunch our Volunteer tasks page on our sites, keep it populated with new tasks, specifically allocate resources to handhold potential volunteers. Allocate time to see if any of the ideas that we didn’t build could be parcelled into volunteer tasks.
- Secondary New site (if we have a lot more time than we expect): Exploit extraordinary richness of Audit Comission local government target data in a TheyWorkForYou-like fashion.
- FixMyStreet to become international with a) maps for most of the world b) easy to follow instructions explaining how to supply mySociety with the required data to us to enable us to turn on FixMyStreet in non UK countries or areas. This data would includ ie gettext powered text translation files, shapefiles of administrative boundaries, and lists of contact data.
- Add votes and proceedings to TheyWorkForYou (where they reveal statutory instrument titles that are not debated but where the law gets changed anyway)
- Carry out usability testing on TheyWorkForYou with then help of volunteer Joe Lanman – then implement changes recommended during a development process taking up to 10 days.
- Add to TheyWorkForYou questions that have been tabled in the house of commons but which haven’t been answered yet.
- Add a new interface for just councils so that they can say if a problem on FixMyStreet has changed status.
Phew. And that’s not even counting the projects we hope to help with in Central and Eastern Europe, our substantial commercial work, or the primary new site idea, which will be blogged in Part 2.
Parliamentary boundary changes appear to be a source of confusion to many people and organisations. The facts are quite simple – parliamentary boundary changes, proposed by the various Boundary Commissions, do not take effect until the next general election. Until then, your MP remains whoever they have been, no matter what literature you may get through your letter box, or what anyone may tell you.
As one example, take Birmingham City Council. Their page on constituencies and wards correctly states that Birmingham is divided into eleven parliamentary constituencies, but then goes on to list only ten – they are listing the new constituencies which do not yet exist, as Birmingham is losing one constituency at the next election. It appears that they have organised themselves along the new boundaries in advance – which is fine, but this doesn’t affect current Parliamentary representation, and so they should explain this clearly, as otherwise members of the public get confused (and blame us for giving them the “wrong” MP, when we haven’t done so). As you can see from the maps above (which highlight Birmingham, Hall Green), the constituencies will be changing their boundaries quite a bit, and we have had reports of people receiving letters from candidates in the next election who are MPs of different neighbouring constituencies, simply referring to themselves as an MP, which is a great source of confusion.
An inhabitant of St Josephs Avenue, Birmingham (behind the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital), which is currently within the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency (red), and the Northfield ward of Birmingham City Council (green), would, on looking at Birmingham City Council’s website, assume they’re in a parliamentary constituency called Northfield. Northfield is currently the constituency to the west of Selly Oak; at the next election, its boundary with Selly Oak will change to the blue line, at which point St Josephs Avenue will be in the Northfield constituency. But not until then.
As another example (chosen purely as it has come up in user support), the Labour candidate for Streatham has a page about the constituency – obviously you would expect a candidate to be talking about the future constituency, but would it hurt to add some explanation that Streatham is currently a slightly different shape?
Boundaries of different things are all independent – if a ward boundary moves due to some local issue, the corresponding Parliamentary boundary does not necessarily change with it (probably not, in fact). So when Birmingham changed its ward boundaries back in 2003, they became out of sync with the Parliamentary constituencies. From the next election, things will be more in sync as the new Parliamentary boundaries are based on more recent ward boundaries, but this will again separate over time. All we can do is always clearly explain the current situation, and ask that others do the same.
Do you have a ‘mySocietyish’ idea that you’d like to see become reality? Is there something radical about the sites we already run that should change? Do you have any smart ideas about helping more people to benefit from the services we already offer? Or would you just like to read and comment on ideas submitted by other people?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we’d like you to submit your idea to our 2009 Call for Proposals (built for us by Richard Pope). We’ve run these twice before in 2003 and 2006, resulting in the launch and success of sites such as WriteToThem and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Just as on previous occasions we’ll pick a winner and some runners up, but also just as before we can only promise to do our best – we don’t have the resources to solemnly promise to build the winner, whatever it might be.
What We’re Looking For (or, an insight into the mySociety mindset)
The characteristics of the winning and runner up ideas are highly likely to include one or more of the following factors. Don’t try and include all of them, that’d be silly
- They have to involve the Internet. We don’t do clay modelling.
- They will capitalise on one or more things that the Internet does really well, better than offline or other forms. WhatDoTheyKnow, for example, seizes on the fact that email can be simultaneously published and rerouted – a simple but critical insight.
- They will either be a whole new website idea, or a smart and impactful modification of something we already do.
- They will be ideas that have clear social, civic or democratic benefits that are really easy to explain to the least political person you know, even if the technology behind them is fiendishly complicated.
- They will have some characteristic that will widely spread the word that the service exists, or that other mySociety services exist.
- They will offer brilliant value for money, even if they’re expensive to build in the first instance.
- They will be genuinely new ideas
- They won’t contain the phrase ‘social media’
We might well change these guidelines a bit as the first responses come in. The call will stay open until September 15th, and we’ll hope to announce the winners in early October.
So what are you waiting for – check out the 2009 Call for Proposals