Earlier this month, Mark laid out the concept of a Democratic Commons for the Civic Tech community: shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit.
He also talked about exploring new models for funding the kind of work that we do in our Democracy practice at mySociety.
For many years, our Better Cities work has been proof of concept for one such model: we provide data and software as a service (FixMyStreet, MapIt, Mapumental) to paid clients, the revenue from which then funds our charitable projects. Could a similar system work to sustain our Democracy practice?
That’s the hope, and with Facebook who we first worked with during the UK General Election in June, providing the data that helped people see and connect with their elected representatives, we’ve already seen it in action.
This kind of project is positive on multiple levels: it brings us an income, it brings the benefits of democratic engagement to a wider audience than we could reach on our own, and it contributes data back into EveryPolitician and Wikidata, that everyone can use.
The UK election was only the first for which we did this work: we’ve gone on to provide the same service for the French elections and more recently for the rather more eventful Kenyan ones — currently on hold as we await the re-run of the Presidential election next month. And now we’re doing the same for the German elections, where candidate data is being shared this week.
As we’re learning, this is definitely not one-size-fits-all work, and each country has brought its own interesting challenges. We’re learning as we go along — for example, one significant (and perhaps obvious) factor is how much easier it is to work with partners in-country who have a better understanding of the sometimes complex political system and candidates than we can ever hope to pick up. Much as we might enjoy the process, there’s little point in our spending days knee-deep in research, when those who live in-country can find lists of candidates far more quickly, and explain individual levels of government and electoral processes far better.
Then, electoral boundaries are not always easy to find. We’ve used OpenStreetMap where possible, but that still leaves some gaps, especially at the more granular levels where the data is mainly owned and licensed by the government. It’s been an exercise in finding different sources and putting them all together to create boundary data to the level required.
Indeed, that seems to be a general pattern, also replicated across candidate data: at the national level, it’s easy to find and in the public domain. The deeper you go, the less those two descriptors hold true. It was also at this point that we realised how much, here in the UK, we take for granted things like the fact that the spelling of representatives’ names is usually consistent across a variety of sources — not always a given elsewhere, and currently something that only a human can resolve!
What makes all the challenges more worthwhile, though, is that we know it’s not just a one-off push that only benefits a single project. Nor is the data going straight into Facebook, never to be seen again.
Much of what we’re collecting, from consistent name data to deep-level boundaries data, is to be made available to all under open use licenses. For example, where possible we can submit the boundaries back to OpenStreetMap, helping to improve it at a local granular level across whole countries.
The politician data, meanwhile, will go into Wikidata and EveryPolitician so that anyone can use it for their own apps, websites, or research.
There are also important considerations about how this type of data will be used and where and when it is released in the electoral process; finding commercial models for our Democracy work is arguably a more delicate exercise than on some of our other projects. But hopefully it’s now clear exactly how a project like this can both sustain us as a charity, and have wider benefits for everyone — the holy grail for an organisation like us.
At the moment it’s unclear how many such opportunities exist or if this is a one-off. We’re certainly looking for more avenues to extend the scope of this work and keen to hear more ideas on this approach.