Open data on elected Politicians and the power of community

You may remember that thanks to a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, mySociety has been working to support increasingly authoritative data on the world’s politicians, to exist on Wikidata as a key part of developing the concept of the Democratic Commons.

And, this summer mySociety welcomed two members of staff to support with the community work around both Wikidata and the Democratic Commons. In May, I (Georgie) joined in the role of ‘Democratic Commons Community Liaison’ and in late June I was joined by Kelly, mySociety’s first ever ‘Wikimedia Community Liaison’… and it’s about time you started to hear more from us!

I’ve been climbing the learning curve: exploring the potential moving parts of a global political data infrastructure,  finding out how the communities of Wikidata and Wikipedia operate, attempting to take meaningful notes at our daily meetings for the tool the team developed to improve political data on Wikidata and making sense of the complexity in creating interface tools to interpret the political data already in Wikidata. Oh, and supporting a “side-project” with Open Knowledge International to try and find every electoral boundary in the world (can you help?).  

And if you are in any of the relevant open Slack channels (what is Slack?), you may have seen my name on the general introduction pages, as I have been shuffling around the online community centres of the world — off Wikidata Talk that is — trying to find  the people interested in, or with a need for, consistently and simply formatted data on politicians, but who aren’t already part of the Wikidata community.

That’s because, the issue the Democratic Commons seeks to address is the time-consuming business of finding and maintaining data on politicians, work that we suspect is duplicated by multiple organisations in each country (often all of them having a similar aim), that is slowing down delivering the stuff that matters. This has certainly been mySociety’s experience when sharing our tools internationally.

And the solution we propose  — the Democratic Commons — is that if people and communities worked together to find and maintain this data, it would be better for everyone…  ah the paradox of simplicity.

Update on efforts to support the Democratic Commons concept

With each interaction and conversation that we’ve had about the Democratic Commons with partners, we’ve continued to learn about the best role for us to play. Here are some initial actions and thoughts that are shaping the work; please feel free to comment, or even better,  get involved  🙂

Making sure the concept is a good fit through user research
We have set a goal to carry out user research on the concept of the Democratic Commons. So far, we have lined up calls with campaign staff  (who are interested in using and supporting open political data through their UK campaigning work) and journalists in Nigeria (who have expressed a need for the data) and I am lining up more calls — if you have a need for or can contribute political data, let’s talk.

Bringing the Open Data/Civic Tech and Wiki communities together?
From my experience to date, the Civic Tech and Wiki communities appear to operate quite separately (I am very open to being proved wrong on this point!).

I am just getting started within the Wikidata/ Wikimedia communities (that’s more for Kelly) but on the Open Data/ Civic tech side,  there are questions about data vandalism and the potential to trust the data from Wikidata, arguments on the benefit of using Wikidata (especially where you already have a lot of useful data) and on whether there is a need to invest time in learning SPARQL, the query language that allows faster retrieval and manipulation of data from databases.

Misconceptions are not unusual in communities online or offline, but it is a gap that our work focus, communications and tools hope to help close. If you have ideas on blogs, video tutorials or articles to share to read around these concepts, please get in touch.

Working openly in existing global communities (off Wiki)
We are aware that, off-Wiki mySociety is leading the work to develop the Democratic Commons, however, we know that we need to be delivering this work in the open for it to be owned by other people outside of mySociety, and finding the right homes to talk about it (off Wiki) has been important.  In order to work openly, we have a shared #DemocraticCommons Slack channel with mySociety and Code for All; see ‘Get involved’ below to find out how to join the conversation.

We also plan to document the learning involved in the process through blog posts and documentation, to be uploaded publicly.

And, supporting local communities to develop, where possible
A global network such as Code for All is very useful in supporting a concept like the Democratic Commons, however, the bulk of need for the data will likely be country-specific. Together with our partners and collaborators, we are exploring what is needed and how to support local communities:

  • Through the remainder of our Wikimedia Foundation Grant, we are supporting community events and editathons: in Lebanon with SMEX, in France with newly formed organisation F0rk, and in Spain with Wikimedia España.
  • Some groups we are working with, such as Code for Pakistan, plan to set up a channel on their Slack instance and use their Whatsapp community to discuss the data use and maintenance.  
  • In my own country, the UK, we are talking to mySociety’s community and collaborators to understand how the Democratic Commons could benefit organisations and work in practice here. If you want to be involved in this work, please contact me.
  • We are listening to understand what support is needed with collaborators in the global South, as we’re well aware that it is a lot to ask people to work on a voluntary basis and that adequate support is needed. I hope we can share the learning and use it to shape any future projects that may emerge.

 

How to get involved in the Democratic Commons?

  • Contribute to the Wikidata community: If you are Wikidata user, or keen to learn,  visit the Wikidata project page on political data. If you need guidance on tasks, do feel free to add to the Talk page to ask the community, or get in touch with Kelly, our Wikimedia Community Liaison: kelly@mysociety.org.
  • Join the conversation on Code for All Slack:  If you would like to join the Slack conversation, join here: https://codeforall.org/ (scroll down and find the ‘Chat with us’ button).
  • Look for electoral boundary data: We are working with Open Knowledge to find electoral boundary data for the whole world. See more about that here.
  • Keep up to date and subscribe to our Medium blog: Sometimes these Democratic Commons posts are a bit too in-depth for the general mySociety readership, so for those who are really interested, we plan to share all we are learning here.
  • Share the concept with contacts: Please share the message on your platforms and encourage potential users to take part in research and get involved. We recognise that our view  — and reach — can only be anglo-centric, and we’d so appreciate any translations you might be able to contribute.
  • Tell us (and others) how you think you would use the data: This can’t just be about collecting data; it’s about it being used in a way that benefits us all. How would the Democratic Commons help your community? We would love people to share any ideas, data visualisations, or theories, ideally in an open medium such as blog posts.  Please connect with Georgie to share.
  • Something missing from this list? Tell us! We’re @mySociety on Twitter or you can email georgie@mysociety.org or kelly@mysociety.org .

Image: Toa Heftiba

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