The People’s Assembly website launches – a one-stop parliamentary monitoring service for the people of South Africa

People's Assembly website

There was some excitement here at mySociety this week, as the People’s Assembly website launched in South Africa. It’s the result of a year’s partnership with PMG and a good test of some of our newest collaborative software.

The site contains a vast amount of information, all available in the same place for the first time, and offering a simple way for South African citizens to keep an eye on what their representatives are doing. There are pages for each representative, Hansard and parliamentary Questions and Answers, records of members’ interests, and more.

Locating, processing and displaying this data was quite a challenge: it has been taken from a wide range of sources, and came in an even greater range of formats, including PDF documents, Word documents, Excel files, CSV files and sometimes just e-mailed lists of information.

But perhaps most significant is the site’s Representative Locator function. For the first time, South African citizens can now find out, with ease, who represents them – not as simple as it might seem at first.

The Proportional Representative system means that members of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces are not directly elected from constituencies.  Political parties are, however, funded to run constituency offices and to allocate representatives to those offices.  We believe that this is the first time this data has been consolidated and presented as a simple search tool.

The software that runs the site

As you’ll know if you read our recent blog post about SayIt, our recent focus has been reaching out to provide software for civic or democratic-focused websites anywhere in the world.

The idea is that such groups no longer need worry about writing code from scratch, since we’ve already done it – and their energies can be better expended on gathering data or adjusting the software to work within the local governmental systems.

People’s Assembly is a great example of this. It utilises two underpinning pieces of technology:

Firstly, the Pombola platform, our software for running parliamentary monitoring websites.

If you’re reading this in the UK, you may be familiar with our own parliamentary monitoring site, TheyWorkForYou. Pombola provides several tools that make it easy to do much of what TheyWorkForYou does: it provides a structured database of the names and positions of those in power; it allows people to look up their elected representatives by inputting their location, and to isolate and see what a specific MP has contributed to discussions in Parliament’s committees and plenaries; albeit, in the case of  Hansard,  after a six-month delay necessitated by South Africa’s own protocols.

We first developed Pombola for Kenya’s, and it’s been re-used for in Nigeria and in Ghana.  It’s superb to see this re-use, as it’s exactly what we set out to acheive.

Secondly, People’s Assembly is the very first site to use SayIt, which is embedded as a Django app to power the Hansard, Questions and Committees content. SayIt is one of our Components, built under the Poplus project, and we’re truly delighted  to see it in place, proving its worth and being used as we first envisaged.

Thanks are due

The main work on the People’s Assembly has been funded by the Indigo Trust, and the SayIt component work was funded by as part of the Poplus Project. We also wish to thank Geoff Kilpin, who helped greatly with the scrapers and templating.