Democratic Commons update: November

What do you want? An update on Democratic Commons!  When do you want it? As regularly as possible!

…well, that’s what you’re getting, anyway. Whether or not you know that’s what you wanted is another matter — because you could be forgiven for having completely missed the Democratic Commons,  the ambitious project that mySociety is helping to develop right now.  

Even more than that — you might think the issues that the project is addressing were all done and dusted years ago. Not having open access to basic data on elected representatives? That sounds like a 2005  issue, especially somewhere like the UK with its thriving Civic Tech sector and a government that’s declared its commitment to open data. And by ‘basic data’, we mean the fundamentals — stuff as simple as the representatives’ names,  the positions they hold and the areas they represent… not exactly rocket science, is it?

But, here we are,  it is almost 2019, and the information on who our elected representatives are is still not easily available as structured, consistent and reusable public data.

And so, we have been busy working closely with Wikidata to support a change. Here’s a rundown of everything we’ve been doing:

  • Supporting the gathering of lots of data on politicians internationally — including detailed electoral boundary data

We’ve been working with partners around the world to get the basic data on political systems, and who is currently elected into positions, into Wikidata.  And we have the electoral boundary data to match the areas they represent.
From the national, down to the city and local level within these cities, this data is now openly available through Wikidata and our GitHub repositories (we’re just writing the documentation for the latter, so watch this space). If you’d like to know more, contact: democracy@mysociety.org

The countries where efforts have been focused to model and/or gather data so far are:
Australia, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Italy, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, South Africa, Taiwan and the UK!

Our partners include Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Fundación Conocimiento Abierto, Distintas Latitudes, g0v, Code for Pakistan, OpenUp, Open Knowledge Bangladesh and Factly.  

  • Building a tool to help you visualise Wikidata and discover what data on politicians exist for any country

Specifically, a visualisation tool that helps you explore what data exists that fits the Wikidata every politician data model (see this blog post). mySociety Developer, Alex Dutton, has been fiddling about in his spare time to create this tool, that runs off SPARQL queries.  Take a look to see what structured data currently exists for any given country – and tell us what you think!

Or, if it shows you that there ’s data missing,  get on Wikidata, and make edits. You’re welcome to ask us for help on this and we’ll be very glad to give it, but you should also know that the Wikidata Facebook group is a great place to ask questions if you’re a newbie.

  • Talking to lots of people about their need for structured, consistent and reusable data on elected representatives
    It’s all very well having all this data, but it doesn’t count for much if people aren’t using it.
    Over the past few months, I’ve been connecting with people and asking how they currently access and maintain data on politicians, and, the implications this has on their work (you may have seen a recent post asking for more examples: this still stands!).
    I’ve also been exploring how people think they could contribute and benefit from being part of a collaborative effort. Here’s a rundown of a few choice conversations:

    • We’ve spent time with Democracy Club, Open Data Manchester and Open Council Data talking about possible approaches to making UK councillor data more accessible. Sym has nicely summarised where we’re at here. I recommend joining the Democracy Club slack channel #councillors if this is something that interests you.
    • Talking to UK focused organisations such as campaign organisation 38Degrees, the brain injury association Headway and the creator of the iparl campaigning tool from Organic Campaigns about how they currently gather and maintain data on elected politicians (ways range from paying for detailed data to supporting political students to maintain spreadsheets); and exploring what they need from data for it to be useful in their work, and the implications of not having this data up to date (small charities struggle to run e-campaigns, for example, that ensure their supporters can connect to representatives).
    • Talking to international organisations who build software for nonprofits and campaigners — like New/Mode, Engaging Networks and The Action Network  — about their data needs, the struggles of candidate data, and whether any of the new data we’ve been collecting can be helpful to them (it can!). In particular, it was great to hear how useful our EveryPolitician data is for New/Mode.
    • Checking what support we can offer to our partners (as listed above) to increase reuse and maintenance of the data in the regions where they work. Also: if you know any further groups interested in reusing data on politicians for their work, please tell them about us.
    • We met with staff at Global Witness and heard how they’re using EveryPolitician data on politicians to uncover potential corruption.
    • And we checked in with the University of Colorado for an update on their project to model the biographies of members of Congress  and see if a politician’s background affects voting behaviour.  
    • We’re also supporting editathon events to improve political data, being delivered by SMEX in Lebanon (read about their event here), France based F0rk and Wikimedia España.
    • And last but very much not least: I attended the Code for All conference. It was really inspiring to meet people from our previous collaborations through Poplus such as Kharil from the Sinar Project, hear some amazing speakers and meet lots of new friends, who we hope to see more as mySociety is now a Code for All affiliate organisation. Also, I surprised myself with my enthusiasm for talking about unique identifiers over a glass of wine…!

What next?

Through November and December, we will be focusing on:

  • Delivering changes to the EveryPolitican.org site to reflect our desire to source the data from Wikidata (not the current arrangement of 11,000 scrapers that keep breaking!) and offer more guidance on how to contribute political data to Wikidata.
  • Working with Wikimedia UK to create some engaging ‘how to get started on Wikidata’ and ‘editing political data’ resources to share with you all.
  • Making sure lots of people know this data exists, so they can use it (and hopefully maintain it). Got any ideas?
  • Finding out what support is needed to continue this work internationally and keep gathering people who also think this work is important — and putting together funding bids so that we can keep supporting this work


Want to get involved? Here’s how

  • Contribute to the Wikidata community: if you are Wikidata user, or keen to learn, the first step is to 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.
  • Join the conversation on the Code for All Slack channel #democratic-commons: https://codeforall.org/ (scroll down and find the ‘Chat with us’ button).
  • Tell us (and others) how you think you would use the data: this project can’t just be about collecting data for its own sake: it’s about it being used in a way that benefits us all. How would the Democratic Commons help your community? We’d 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 democracy@mysociety.org.

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash