Just recently, we’ve noticed a couple of MPs dismissing TheyWorkForYou as ‘not an official source’, with one even claiming that it ‘distorts the truth’.
This pains us a little. Because, while it’s true that we’re not ‘official’ — we’re not run by Parliament — we think that these assertions are slightly misleading themselves.
So, here’s a handy rundown of our methods and provenance to clear a few points up. Feel free to share it next time you see someone questioning the authority of data shared from TheyWorkForYou.
1. We do not have a political agenda
We do not pursue a party political agenda, and in fact we go to great pains to ensure that TheyWorkForYou, as with all mySociety’s output, is entirely politically neutral.
We tread this line both because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because it’s a condition of our charitable status that we do not campaign on behalf of any political party.
That said, we do have one agenda: that of making the democratic process more accessible for everyone. Just like the name of the website says, MPs work on behalf of us. That being the case, shouldn’t everyone be able to understand exactly what it is that they do, and hold them accountable if they don’t live up to expectations?
We provide facts and tools that anyone can use to make up their own mind — not just political experts or those who already understand the jargon. That was the point behind the site when we launched back in 2004, and it remains the driving force behind TheyWorkForYou.
2. Our data is largely created by Parliament
We are not of Parliament, nor are we funded by it (we’re an independent charity). However, the vast majority of the content on TheyWorkForYou comes directly from official Parliamentary sources such as Hansard, the official record of each day’s debates.
Parliament, rather handily, provides the raw data to anyone who wants it, in the form of a ‘feed’ that can be used in websites, apps or other tools.
TheyWorkForYou takes this data and presents it in a way that’s easy to read, browse, search, etc. We add a few features, such as email alerts, and through the use of some light coding we create and present statistics like the number of times an MP has spoken, or whether they have rebelled against the way that the majority of their party voted.
In a nutshell: although we’re dealing with exactly the same data that Parliament outputs, we also provide a few services that Parliament doesn’t, or which it didn’t when we first launched TheyWorkForYou.
3. TheyWorkForYou is mostly updated by machines
Contrary to popular belief, TheyWorkForYou is not compiled by a roomful of elves with keyboards. Nor do humans do very much editing of the site on a day-to-day basis. Almost all the content is fetched from those parliamentary sources and then published out automatically, through the magic of code.
It’s also code that does automated calculations so that we can present statistics like the number of speeches made, or written questions submitted, by each MP.
4. But there are some things we have to do by hand
So in large part, TheyWorkForYou is a machine that we just keep ticking over smoothly.
However, there is one important function of the site which can’t be entirely compiled by code, and that’s the summaries of how MPs have voted.
TheyWorkForYou is the only place to present votes in the way that we do. On each MP’s page you can see a list of where they stand on key topics, and you can also dive in more deeply to understand the individual votes that went to make up that stance.
Why can’t a machine output information like this? Well, it can (and does) do the first part, which is to fetch every record of where an MP has participated in a vote. But what it can’t do is categorise the votes into topic areas, and tell us how much significance to attach to a vote within a wider topic.
For example: imagine a series of votes on an initiative to bring more women into the workplace. A key vote might push for legislation requiring all workplaces to work towards a 50/50 gender split.
But there might also be votes on issues such as workplaces being obliged to run annual audits, or to publish their gender-based employment statistics; or on whether the government should allocate a chunk of budget towards helping workplaces meet their targets in this area, or on which date the legislation should be implemented by.
While it’s clear that all of these votes are relevant to the topic, some of them can be seen to have more weight when we consider the question, ‘has this MP voted for or against (or a mixture of for and against) encouraging equality in the workplace?’.
That is the part where we employ a human being to assess each vote and decide how much importance it should be given. You can read more about this process in this blog post.
5. We are committed to transparency
Because of our drive for neutrality, we are super-scrupulous about ensuring that everything to do with the voting records we publish is as transparent and measured as possible.
We often debate the wording used to describe a vote (for clarity as well as to expunge any bias), and other nuances too, as they arise. We have these discussions in public, on TheyWorkForYou’s Github repository.
(Note: this exchange has been edited to exclude some information not relevant to the point it illustrates; the full text can be seen on Github).
Since introducing dedicated, easy-to-follow voting pages for each MP on the site back in 2015, we’ve gone on to make improvements where needed.
For example, we’ve added contextual data underneath each topic, because one thing that’s become clear is that even factual data can be misleading if you don’t present the whole picture:
More recently, our attention was drawn towards potential confusion around the fact that recently-elected MPs voting in 2016 on a newly-arisen point about an inquiry into the Iraq war were being compared to those MPs who participated in multiple votes back in 2002-2003.
This is the sort of nuanced issue that can be difficult to foresee when writing the code that runs the site: fortunately, TheyWorkForYou undergoes a continual process of refinement.
Which leads us to the next point:
6. We’re still working on it
Sometimes, putting an automated action in place can bring unforeseen results.
One example of this is the fact that if an MP has voted only once within the group of votes which go to make up a topic — let’s say, they’ve participated in a single vote on same-sex marriage, but perhaps all the other votes in that category predated their entry to the House — at the moment TheyWorkForYou marks them as voting ‘consistently’ for or against same-sex marriage. Which is accurate when looked at in one way, but at the same time, not.
When this sort of thing arises, we add it to our development list for discussion, and implement a fix as soon as we can fit it in to our other priorities. You can join in the debate, too. If you spot something that you think should be done differently, you can let us know.
7. Facts are facts
But back to the overall aim of presenting accurate, trustworthy facts. One thing that’s worth remembering is that when it comes to votes, we can only publish one thing: whether the MP voted for, or against, the motion.
We cannot speculate on whether an MP has voted one motion through against his or her conscience, because it has been bundled in with other matters which they considered a higher priority.
We can’t detect those occasions when an MP of one party has traded votes with an MP from the opposite party, so that neither of them need turn up, nor do we know if an MP is ill, having a baby, or tied up with important diplomatic duties abroad.
We do not attempt to include context such as ‘this MP spoke prior to the vote to give nuance to their decision’ — although you can, of course, find all debates on TheyWorkForYou and research the background for yourself. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this kind of context is that the site automatically detects when an MP has voted differently to the majority of his or her party colleagues, in which case we flag it up as a ‘rebellion’.
And — perhaps the one that MPs object to the most often — we cannot include details of whether they were whipped (ie, told how to vote by the party) because that is not officially recorded anywhere. If we could, we’d love to — but TheyWorkForYou, as per point 2, can only import data that exists.
Besides, some MPs will vote against the whip, if they feel strongly enough. As Peter Lilley noted in 2013, that has become more and more common. Why? He credits the internet, the ease with which constituents can contact their MPs to put forward their points of view and — oh, what’s this? — “websites such as theyworkforyou.com [that] make it easier than ever to see how an MP voted on gay marriage, war or Europe”.
As one of our team puts it, “Politicians should be held accountable for what they actually do, not what they claim they might have done under different circumstances”. A vote is a vote, and it is sometimes remarkable to us how many MPs object to seeing a factual list of how they have voted, in black and white.
8. We must be doing something right…
175,000 people use TheyWorkForYou every month; hundreds of thousands have signed up to receive email alerts when their chosen keyword is mentioned or their MP has spoken.
When there’s an election, some important political news, or someone new is appointed to a position in the Cabinet, we see a huge upturn in the number of times our content — and especially voting records — is shared on social media. There’s a real thirst for this information to be provided in a way that anyone can understand: how else can we make important decisions such as who to vote for?
It’s not just the electorate, though. Each month brings around 5,000 visits from within Parliament itself, which is a good measure that we’re providing, at least, some things which aren’t as accessible via the official channels.
9. We’re open to discussion
We are more than happy to hear from MPs who, having understood the points above, believe that their activity has been misrepresented.
As we say, there is always room for improvement as we try to keep the balance between making information as easy as possible for non-experts to follow, and ensuring that it’s non-biased and non-ambiguous as we do so.
But we hope this piece has shown the steps we are taking as we strive to do just that.
10. We are a charity, and we need new sources of funding
Historically, TheyWorkForYou, as with mySociety’s other projects, has been largely supported by grant funding: money that has come from foundations and philanthropic organisations who believe that there should be a service like TheyWorkForYou that makes the UK’s parliaments easier to understand for everyone.
Right now, though, there is no such income for our Democracy work. We are having to explore new models for its survival. Meanwhile if you’d like to help ensure that TheyWorkForYou can keep running, please make a donation.
Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.
Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.
The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.
We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).
We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.
But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.
In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.
We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.
While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.
mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.
We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.
If you’re in a wheelchair, it can be tricky enough getting around. So it’s particularly disappointing to learn that some taxi firms charge wheelchair passengers extra, and that some drivers refuse to take passengers in wheelchairs at all.
If you’re thinking ‘surely that’s illegal’ — well, it is. Only from quite recently, though: it was last April that a law came in which imposed a £1,000 fine for drivers who refused or charged extra for those in wheelchairs.
But there’s a complication. This fine can only be imposed by councils who keep a designated list of all wheelchair-accessible public hire vehicles: no list, no fines.
Does it matter? Well, that depends on how many councils are intending to compile the list. And as WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley knows very well, there’s one good way to find out information from every local authority: via a Freedom of Information request.
Doug used WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FoI requests to all 366 taxi licensing councils, and Transport for London, who administer taxi licensing on behalf of all the London boroughs. The results of his research can be seen in full here, or you can quickly check your own local council on this map.
As indicated, if your council is one of the 59% who, by not keeping a list, are unable to implement the anti-discrimination law, you might like to contact your councillors to let them know how you feel about that.
You may know Dr Ben Goldacre from his ‘Bad Science’ and ‘Bad Pharma’ campaigns, which fight misinformation around medicine. Ben has just launched his latest project, the AllTrials Transparency Index — and mySociety helped with the website side of things.
The AllTrials campaign focuses around the fact that a shockingly large proportion of clinical trials do not have their results publicly published.
Not only does this devalue the time, goodwill and even potential risk put in by participants, but there are also issues around bias. Those trials published tend to be the ones which show positive results: if that doesn’t sound like such a terrible situation to you, try playing this game from the Economist magazine, which graphically depicts the problems with skewed coverage. At worst, such selective publication can be dangerous, or lead to poor choices from bodies making medical purchasing decisions.
Transparency and data visualisation are two areas where mySociety has a long history, and so it came to be that we fashioned the deceptively simple AllTrials Transparency Index site, on which anyone can browse the transparency index of the world’s major drug companies, and dive in deeper to the data to see how it was compiled. The source data is free for others to download too, so anyone can integrate it into other projects.
AllTrials are also tracking whether companies register new trials:
That’s the part that anyone can understand — and now, notes for the more technically-inclined who may be wondering how we took the data on each drugs company and presented it in a way that can be quickly and easily taken in.
This is an ongoing campaign with a commitment to future audits, so we wanted to make it easy for the AllTrials team to update the site and republish the source data each time they do.
It’s a static Jekyll site. We wrote a custom plug-in to parse a CSV and produce a page for each company within that CSV, as well as creating some summary data that feeds into the graphs on the front page.
This data is then pulled from the CSV, and D3 is employed to build the graphs and insert them into the generated pages.
The end result is a site that looks good and which can automatically update whenever the underlying data changes. We hope we’ll have played a small part in helping to ensure that it does — and for the better.
What would Eddie Grundy do if he came across a pothole? And how would Linda Snell deal with flytipping on the site of the Ambridge village fete?
Fortunately, these fictional characters now enjoy the same access to FixMyStreet as the rest of us, thanks to the new demo site we’ve built.
The thinking behind it is not, of course, to gather reports from an entirely fictional world. We’re not that mad. Rather, we needed a sandbox interface where we could show councils exactly how FixMyStreet works, and allow them to play about with both the customer end and the admin side, all without causing any major repercussions to the running of the standard site. Enter FixMyStreet Borsetshire.
Prospective buyers of the system from local councils can experience the various levels of administration that the back-end allows. Just log in with the credentials seen on this page and see exactly how reports can be shortlisted, actioned, or moderated.
So, we’re expecting reports of pigs on the loose, flooded culverts and perhaps even a flying flapjack. But if you’re hoping to find out the precise location of Ambridge, unfortunately you’ll be disappointed: the map is actually centred around Chipping Sodbury, far from the village’s supposed Midlands locale.
This month, FixMyStreet.com sent one more report off to a council. There was nothing to distinguish it from all the other reports of fly-tipping, potholes and graffiti… except that it was the one millionth to be sent since the site began.
Back in 2007, when mySociety first launched FixMyStreet, we had a feeling it’d be useful — but we couldn’t have foreseen the take-up it’s had not only here in the UK, but across the world and in many forms. One million seems like a real milestone, so in celebration, here’s a whistle-stop tour of FixMyStreet’s life so far.
First through the doors
The first report ever sent to a council through FixMyStreet was this one, concerning a broken streetlight.
It was created by a mySociety staff member during beta testing of the site, and sent off to Oxford City Council — who fixed the streetlight. Proof of concept, and we were off.
Once it was clear that everything was working smoothly, FixMyStreet had its official launch that March.
Those who know and love FixMyStreet may be surprised to hear that in this first incarnation, it was given the slightly less snappy title of Neighbourhood Fix-It.
Just a week after launch, users had already filed over 1,000 reports — a sign that there really was a need for this site.
The reasons for its popularity? After all, all councils these days provide a fault-reporting system themselves, so why the enthusiastic take-up of a site that duplicates this functionality? We think the reasons are twofold:
- You don’t have to worry about which council is responsible for an issue: FixMyStreet just automatically sends it off to the right one. There are lots of reasons why you may not know where to send a street report, not least the UK’s two-tiered system of local authorities.
- We make the reporting process as simple as possible. It’s that whole ‘swans looking graceful but paddling like crazy under the waterline’ thing: we put in an awful amount of work to make sure that you don’t even notice the issues FixMyStreet has to deal with to make the user experience super-smooth. Back in 2012 we blogged about some of the thinking behind the site; for example here’s why FixMyStreet begins by asking just one simple question.
By June we’d realised that Neighbourhood Fix-It wasn’t the snappiest of names, and thus was born FixMyStreet as we know and love it.
In June 2008, Apple launched their app store.
Our developers saw the future, it seems: by December that year, we’d launched a FixMyStreet app (NB, the links in that 2008 post don’t work any more: if you’d like current versions of the app, you’ll find them here for Apple and here for Android).
The FixMyStreet apps have been downloaded more than 40,000 times, and we’re seeing a real growth in those who use it to make their reports: in the last year it accounted for 27% of reports. This reflects a general increase in the use of mobile (you can also use your mobile’s browser to access www.fixmystreet.com) — 55% of our visitors came via a phone or tablet in the last year.
Open for re-use
Like most mySociety software, the code that FixMyStreet runs on is Open Source: that means that anyone can pick it up for free, and run their own site on it.
In March 2011, a group of coders in Norway were the very first to do this, with their version FiksGataMi (it means FixMyStreet in Norwegian. They could have gone for Nabolaget Fikser Det, which means Neighbourhood Fix-It, but, well, you know…).
Since then, we’ve made real efforts to make the code easier for others to deploy, and ensured that the improvements we add to our own FixMyStreet are also available for all the others: just recently we rolled out version 2.1 of the codebase.
Taking a peek to see what’s being reported around the world is one of our favourite, if non-standard, means of armchair travelling.
A Norwegian puddle-prone footbridge gets in the way of christenings, confirmations and school meetings; meanwhile in Spanish city Alcalá de Henares, a resident complains about the smell created by rubbish lorries while allowing us a splendid view across the rooftops; and in Malaysia, a pack of stray dogs is causing problems for one reporter.
We’d wanted to provide a reporting system that bettered those offered by local councils: in June 2012 that goal was seemingly affirmed when some councils purchased the system to place on their own websites.
We officially launched FixMyStreet for Councils, with Bromley and Barnet being the very first local authorities to implement it. Since then, we’ve been in a continual process of improvement, driven by input and collaboration with many councils around the country. Several more have become clients, too. We’ll have more news on the latest developments soon (and meanwhile, if you are from a council, you can learn more here).
One of the nicest things about a codebase like FixMyStreet is that it can be deployed in many — sometimes surprising — ways. If you’ve followed our blog over the years, you’ll have seen the Channel 4 collaboration Empty Homes Spotter; the bicycle incident-reporting platform Collideoscope; and a project fighting corruption in Malaysia.
Bringing out the poetry in potholes
There’s something about FixMyStreet that inspires some users to exercise their powers of descriptive prose: we celebrated many of them in this 2014 post.
Then there are the reports which attract comments from other users. Lots of them, year in, year out. This one about seagulls in Brighton, for example, has become a one-stop forum for people all around the country to come together in their mutual despair of and/or love for our coastal avian friends.
Ever more reports
You can track the progress as we head towards the next million reports on our new stats page; where you might also be interested to see which councils are currently responding to issues most quickly, and what categories of problem are most-reported at any given time.
As you can see, at the moment the site is handling around 4,000 reports a week: but you can expect that to rise when the weather gets colder — we always get a lot more pothole reports in the winter.
And, are you wondering just what that millionth report was about? Nothing is ever simple: because some reports are made and then subsequently deleted at the user’s request, or because they contravene FixMyStreet’s house rules, we can’t just identify report number 1000000 as the millionth. Those deleted reports retain their original numbers, even though they’re not live.
But doing a quick bit of calculation, we suspect that the rightful millionth report might be this utterly unremarkable one in Knowsley. Long live the unsensational reports that simply get things fixed.
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Image: Alison Benbow (CC by/2.0)
In February 2016, Tom Gallard made a simple request to the Welsh Government through our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com. He wanted to know the exact sum paid to Aston Martin in a much-publicised deal which would bring its luxury car-making facilities to St Athan.
15 months later, in June 2017, he received the answer.
Now clearly, this is not an example of an efficient and prompt release of information on request — so let’s look at exactly what happened.
Tom’s request was not complex, but it appeared to ask for something that the Welsh Government were reluctant to disclose, and as a result, it encountered several obstacles.
February 24, 2016: request made
Tom made his one-line request: “Please provide details of the financial support agreed with Aston Martin to create 750 jobs at St Athan.”
Was there anything in particular that spurred you to make this request?
“I read a lot of the news reports around the deal to bring Aston Martin to Wales, and I got more and more frustrated as it became clear that no-one was disclosing how much this would cost. I didn’t feel I could judge whether it was a good use of money or not, without knowing how much was being spent”.
March 23, 2016: reminder sent
Under the FOI Act, authorities are supposed to respond to request for information promptly, and at most within 20 working days. WhatDoTheyKnow sends its users a reminder when this date has passed, so you can chase your request if needs be.
According to this official timeline, Tom’s response was due by March 24 at the latest, but in their acknowledgement, the Welsh Government had said that they would reply by March 14, so his reminder wasn’t necessarily premature.
March 24, 2016: refusal received
The Welsh Government did reply within the time-limit, albeit on the last possible day.
Their response confirmed that they did have the information Tom had requested, but stated that it was exempt from disclosure under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to commercial interests. Use of this clause requires the authority to show that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in releasing it.
Same day: review requested
When you receive a refusal in response to your FOI request, you might think that there’s nothing more you can do — but, as WhatDoTheyKnow’s automated advice explains to users in this situation, you have the right to request an internal review.
Tom did just that, quoting ICO guidance on commercial interests, noting that the Welsh Government had previously published information on grant funding given to other companies, and particularly, pointing out an apparent misreading of the meaning of ‘public interest’ on behalf of the Welsh Government: “The public interest here means the public good, not what is of interest to the public”.
“What frustrated me was a refusal in the Welsh Government’s response to engage with the specific case. I had seen them produce a lot of very similarly worded replies to a range of FOI requests. I spent a lot of time reading previous judgements by the Information Commissioner, and felt I had a strong case.”
Why do you think the Welsh Government might have been so reluctant to release this figure? As you mention, figures for similar deals had been released in the past.
“A lot of people have found this reluctance odd. It has also been suggested to me, by a couple of well-placed sources, that the figure they have now released is just one part of the support the Welsh Government has agreed to provide to Aston Martin.”
April 26, 2016: review reminder, response, referral to the ICO
Tom knew his rights and as he mentioned in this follow-up — two days after he should have received a response — “ICO guidance suggests that if the 20 day limit is to be breached, I should have received an email telling me this, and the reasons for the delay”.
Whether because of this reminder or not, he received his response that same day. The Welsh Government’s own internal review concluded that they had been within their rights to withhold the information under Section 43 of the FOI Act.
Again, this is a point at which many requesters might give up, and again it’s one where WhatDoTheyKnow can inform you of your options. If you believe that an authority is withholding information which it should have released, and you have been through the internal review process, you can refer the case to the ICO.
As this part of the process happened outside WhatDoTheyKnow, Tom helpfully left an annotation on his request page.
December 6, 2016: amendments from the Welsh Government
While the case was with the ICO, the Welsh Government sent a further response to indicate that they were changing their reason for exemption: they were now relying on two different sections of the FOI Act: 29(1)(b), the economy, and 36(2)(c), the effective conduct of public affairs, details of which you can see in this response.
Tom left an annotation to say he’d alerted the ICO to the change in defence, along with some counter-arguments.
May 31, 2017 ICO ruling
ICO decisions do not generally come quickly, but it can certainly be worth lodging your complaint with them.
June 2, 2017, information received
Two days later, the sum was finally disclosed, and can be seen here.
– Now that you have the information you requested, will you be using it any way, or are you simply content that it’s now in the public domain?
“I’m happy it’s out there now. But I’m definitely considering whether I can squeeze out some more details about how else the Welsh Government is supporting Aston Martin.”
And of course, that path is also open to anyone else who’s interested in this deal. There’s lots more that could be requested through FOI, from what the exact wording of the contract is, to how the outcomes will be monitored, or how the money is to be paid (the ICO decision notes that no payments had been made as of April 2017; if they are made in the future, they might be pro-actively published on the Welsh Government site — or, if not, someone might need to make another FOI request in order to obtain them).
If you do make a related request, please do mention it in an annotation on Tom’s request so that others can easily find it.
This was a long story
As you might expect, at mySociety we are strongly in favour of the citizen’s right to information under the FOI Act.
Naturally, we prefer it when information is released without a hitch. But those aren’t always the best stories: we hope that by highlighting examples like this, where WhatDoTheyKnow users have shown tenacity and determination, we can show that if you have a valid request, it’s worth sticking to your guns.
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Image: Adam Court (CC by/2.0)
How can we counter Fake News — and should we even try? Do big corporations have a moral duty to share their data for the betterment of the world? Why do petitions created by women get more signatures than those created by men?
These are just a few of the questions posed — and answered — at TICTeC 2017.
If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), you’ll be glad to know that you can now access videos of the key presentations, as well as interviews where delegates share their insights and specialist expertise. Where available, we’ve also shared speakers’ slides.
You can see the whole lot on the TICTeC website, and as a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:
And don’t forget: you can join us for a special extra TICTeC conference in September this year. We’ll be hosting TICTeC@Taipei as part of Asia’s first Civic Tech Fest, an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology. More details and how to register can be found at civictechfest.org.
Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.
As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’
Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.
We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.
But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.
If you want to help campaign
The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.
At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.
Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.
In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:
- Request to see the tender for the provision of cladding
- How missing and unaccounted-for people have been counted
- Details of insurance on the tower
- Numbers and demographics of tenants
- Income and repairs expenditure
- Details of the 2013 emergency fire test
- Date of the last fire test
- Further details on the cladding, fire alarm and sprinklers
If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.
Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea The council in which Grenfell Tower is situated
- London Fire Brigade The service which ran rescue and firefighting operations
- Kensington and Chelsea TMO The Tenant Management Organisation, or Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) which managed the tower
- Metropolitan Police
- All ALMOs (for those who wish to ask for information about other blocks)
- All Housing Associations Note that, unless publicly owned, housing associations are not subject to FOI; however they are included on the site for the reasons you will see at the top of each housing association’s page on WhatDoTheyKnow, like this one.
Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.
Lobby for change
Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.
If you want quick answers
Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.
If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:
- Cladding on other tower blocks – reassurance needed
- Is Katherine’s Court in Spring Boroughs similar cladding to Grenfell Tower
- High Rise blocks in Wood Vale
But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.
WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.
What we will be doing
We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.
Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.
*Unless covered by an exemption.
Millions of people reached for their phone on June 9, and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.
Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.
And the morning after, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:
We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.
Reaching people where they are
mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.
That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.
What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.
That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.
That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.
Facebook for engagement
You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.
Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.
mySociety behind the scenes
Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.
In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?
Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).
While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.
Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.