1. Informing ourselves: what we learned at AlaveteliCon 2015

    AlaveteliCon – the conference about online Freedom of Information technologies – took place in Madrid last week.

    It was an opportunity for people who run sites based on our FOI software Alaveteli (as well as other FOI platforms such as Frag Den Staat and MuckRock) to come together and share experiences, frustrations, solutions—and the kind of anecdotes that only FOI site implementers can truly understand.

    It was also a fascinating snapshot of FOI laws around the world, and how digital tech is enabling the shoots of FOI to germinate in a variety of places, many of them previously closeted. It was inspiring, helpful and a refreshing reboot for practitioners, many of whom are fighting against quite considerable difficulties in their attempts to provide access to information.

    We heard from delegates from countries as diverse as Rwanda, Australia, Uganda, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Spain, and many more. As we heard of each country’s specific problems, we also learned, conversely, that many of our challenges are much the same everywhere.

    Resources

    Over the next few weeks we will be sharing videos, photos and further blog posts, but for now you can get a taste of AlaveteliCon 2015 for yourself in the following places:

    • The conference agenda shows which sessions ran and who was speaking
    • A Storify gathers together tweets and photos to trace the conference’s main themes
    • Some photos (we hope to have more soon) are on Flickr and Instagram
    • The Twitter hashtag, #Alaveteli15 lets you see how things unfolded in real time
    • We’ve put together a Twitter list of Alaveteli deployments around the world: should be a great follow if you’re one of them
    • There’s now also an Alaveteli Slack channel for those who would like to continue the conversations begun at AlaveteliCon: ping @HenareDegan if you’d like access
    • Join an Alaveteli Google Group: There’s one for sharing experiences of running online FOI platforms, and another for developers using Alaveteli.

    We co-hosted Alavetelicon with Access Info, and the event was made possible with support from Open Society Foundations. Many thanks to all our speakers and delegates, whose insights and generous sharing of experiences ensured that everyone went home with plenty to work on!

    We hope to summarise several of the themes that emerged in a series of upcoming blog posts.

    Finally

    There were so many discussions, offers of help, ideas, and plans for the future that it’s hard to pick out just one benefit that came from the conference.

    But to my mind, the overarching mood is expressed in the following two tweets:

    It’s the idea of Alaveteli as not just a piece of software, but a genuine community, with the ability to support its members. The idea that, working together, we can identify and overcome difficulties.

    Putting faces to names, listening to stories—and yes, sharing a cerveza or two over the two days of AlaveteliCon—really helped to consolidate that idea.

    A lot of enthusiasm was born in Madrid: long may it last.

  2. New homepage for TheyWorkForYou

    Visit TheyWorkForYou’s homepage today, and you’ll see big changes.

    For some time now, we’ve been working on rolling improvements to TheyWorkForYou’s design, starting with MPs’ and Lords’ profile pages and voting records.

    These pages being the most visited, it made sense – but it did leave us with a shop window that did no justice to the goods within.

    High time for a new front page

    TheyWorkForYou’s homepage had not changed all that much since the site began in 2004: as new content such as committees or the devolved parliaments were added in, they simply got squeezed in wherever they would fit.

    This is the first time in a good few years that we’ve taken a step back, started again with a blank canvas and prioritised what’s important.

    Simpler, leaner, better-looking

    It tells you what the site is for

    Consistently, a good 60% of our users are first-time visitors to the site, so we need to make it very clear exactly what we do, and why they should care.

    It helps you find your MP’s information

    78% of the UK population don’t know the name of their MP (presumably that’ll be even higher for a while, post-election!). That’s why a postcode box, which matches you to your MP—and not a search box—is the most prominent input on the page.

    It highlights current affairs

    We know from experience that a large proportion of our users’ searches are based around issues that have just hit the headlines, whether that’s the latest budget, a ding-dong at Prime Minister’s questions, or a big news story.

    It’s not always obvious to a casual observer where to find the relevant debates: for example, in Hansard (the official record of Parliament, which is where our content comes from) the budget is called the ‘Autumn Statement’, while Prime Minister’s Questions is labelled ‘Engagements’.

    So now we have space to signpost the content that most visitors are likely to be looking for.

    It encourages you to subscribe to activity

    In a secondary but still prominent position, we signal that you can sign up for email alerts whenever your chosen MP speaks or your chosen keyword is mentioned. We hope that this will encourage still more people to engage on the things that matter to them.

    It offers other paths in to content

    If you’re just browsing, there’s still plenty of chance to see what’s new. Recent activity from Parliament is showcased on the lower half of the page, or you can riffle through all the different parliaments and types of debate in the top menu.

    A fitting gateway

    TheyWorkForYou still has all the same content, but now it has a homepage to be proud of, too.

    That homepage is still a gateway into rich data: an archive of searchable, shareable, readable debates going back to the 1930s, profiles and voting records for MPs and Lords both current and historic, and the calendar of upcoming events.

    With this new design, though, it should all be much easier to find. We hope you like it.

  3. Are you one in 6,983,028? Looking at our UK visitor numbers

    How many people visit mySociety’s websites?

    That’s a question we don’t ask ourselves as much as many other organisations. Much of our current funding is dependent on transactions (that is, the number of people using the site to complete an action such as making an FOI request, writing to a politician, or signing up to receive emails when their MP speaks), and rightly so, since that is a better measure of the sites’ actual effectiveness.

    All the same, visitor numbers* do tell us about things like how much public awareness there is of what we do, and which of our sites is more visible than the others, so it’s good to take a proper look now and again.

    Which of our UK sites is most visited?

    By far our most popular site in terms of visitor numbers is our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. With over 4.5 million visitors 2014-15, it’s had three times more users than its closest competitor, TheyWorkForYou.

    As well as allowing users to submit FOI requests, WhatDoTheyKnow also puts the responses into the public domain, so that the information becomes openly available. Every request receives, on average, twenty readers, meaning that transactions do not show the whole picture for this site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow’s user numbers are also rising steadily. It’s up 8% on last year, and March 2015 was its highest month for unique users since its launch in 2008, at 470,509.

    Which is least visited?

    This dubious honour goes to WriteToThem, which nonetheless welcomed 457,209 visitors during the year, either helping them to write to their representatives, or simply showing them who those representatives were.

    This was still a decent 11% rise on the previous year, despite a real rollercoaster where some months dipped substantially from the previous year.

    Which made the most gains in the last year?

    FixMyStreet saw the biggest percentage change, with a 21% rise in visitor numbers compared to the previous year; we talked a bit more about that in a recent blog post. WhatDoTheyKnow had the highest rise in actual visitor numbers: over 360,000 up on 2013-14.

    Which fell by the most in the last year?

    TheyWorkForYou saw a 12% drop in visitor numbers year on year (and also the biggest drop in real terms)—disappointing, but something we hope to rectify with the new voting pages, an ongoing process of rolling redesign, and some grassroots outreach.

    How much effect do external events have on visitor numbers?

    Plenty!

    We already know that, as you’d expect, when Parliament is on holiday, MPs, debates and legislation aren’t in the news, and TheyWorkForYou visitor numbers fall. There’s also a weekly pattern for all our sites, where far fewer people use them at the weekends, presumably indicating that lots of our users access them from work.

    It’s too early to say exactly what effect the election has had on our sites: as I write, people are eagerly checking out the voting records of newly-appointed cabinet ministers on TheyWorkForYou.

    One thing we know for sure is that fewer people will have been using WriteToThem, because there have been no MPs to write to for the last few weeks. We’ve removed the “write to your MP” links from TheyWorkForYou, which always drove a good deal of WriteToThem’s traffic.

    FixMyStreet enjoyed a boost back in June, when it was featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘The Complainers’—and the nice thing is, user numbers never receded back to their previous levels after the programme was over. Maybe people just need to use FixMyStreet to see how useful it is.

    How many people visit mySociety’s UK websites in total?

    This is a difficult figure for us to produce with accuracy, because we don’t trace whether you’re the same person visiting a number of our different sites.

    However, the aggregate total of visitors to all our UK sites (WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow) for 2014-15 is 6,983,028. Thanks very much if you were one of them :)

    How can I help?

    Glad you asked! If you find mySociety sites useful, you can help us spread the word by telling friends, sharing the URLs with any groups you are a member of, posting on Facebook or Twitter, or writing to your local paper.

    We have a number of materials for FixMyStreet which can be found here; we hope to create similar materials for our other sites too, and we’ll make sure we announce it on here when we do.

    * Note: all references to ‘users’ refer to unique users within the period discussed. So, users in a year means individual people who may have visited any number of times over that year, but are only counted once; same with monthly users.

    Image: Rodrigo Moraes (CC)

  4. Track your MP’s activity with TheyWorkForYou

    So, the results are in. Some of us have a brand new MP. Others will see the same familiar face returning to the benches of Westminster.

    Either way, the important questions remain the same:

    • What will your MP do in Parliament?
    • Will they speak about the things that matter to you?
    • How will they vote in your name?

    The easy way to keep up

    TheyWorkForYou.com makes it very easy to keep check: you can even sign up to receive an email whenever your MP speaks. These are in the form of a daily digest, and we only send them on days when your MP has actually contributed to a debate.

    It’s the low-effort way to see exactly what your MP is getting up to, with no spin, just the facts. Click here for our easy sign-up.

    All change

    If you already receive alerts, but your prior MP has lost their seat, be sure to set up an alert for the new one now. We’ll be sending reminders to all current subscribers.

    There’s no need to cancel the previous alert, however: if your old MP isn’t in Parliament, we simply won’t be sending any more emails about them.

    Image: Parliament Acts by Jeroen van Luin (CC)

  5. We’re up all night to get MPs

    Spare a thought for us over the night of May 7th – for, when the nation wakes up to the General Election results, we’ll have been up all night updating TheyWorkForYou.

    As you might imagine, elections are bitter-sweet times for us here at mySociety. On the one hand, swingometers, marginals and ballot boxes are about as exciting as life gets for a bunch of political geeks. On the other, we have only a short window of time in which to ensure our parliamentary websites reflect the new administration.

    In previous years, this has meant manually updating an XML file and running an import script 650 times – slightly arduous, even for the most dedicated civic coder. This year, we’re taking advantage of the fact that YourNextMP exists and several of us will be staying up anyway to see the results, and hoping to do things a little differently.

    As each result is announced (or potentially even earlier, if it’s clear that there’s only one possible winner), site administrators will be logged in to YourNextMP, where they’ll have access to a “this person won!” button. We’ll be on a rota throughout the night, sharing duties with the equally dedicated Democracy Club volunteer team.

    When that button is clicked, YourNextMP will update, and TheyWorkForYou will notice and automatically update its underlying JSON data.

    This is the data we match you with when you input your postcode on the homepage, meaning that TheyWorkForYou should be a great place to find out who your next MP is as soon as you wake up (assuming the results are in) on 8th May.

    UPDATE: If you are interested in the technical aspects of the YourNextMP and TheyWorkForYou updates, you may like to read more about it in this thread.

    A blank canvas

    Note that new MPs will not have a great deal on their pages yet: TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages are built up of voting and debating activity, past positions and expenses, etc, and of course, totally new MPs will have none of that. But there’s one important feature that you should take advantage of on Friday—the ‘subscribe’ button.

    Sign up, and we’ll send you an email every time your new MP speaks in Parliament, so you can keep track of exactly what he or she is saying in your name. If you were previously following an MP who has resigned or lost their seat, don’t forget to follow the new one! We’ll be sending out a message straight after the election to remind you.

    WriteToThem

    Another website which will require a lot of attention post-election is WriteToThem, which matches you with your local and national politicians so that you can contact them.

    Unfortunately, WriteToThem takes a little longer to update, as we rely on data, including email addresses, from external sources. We’ll be updating as soon as we can. Meanwhile, if you have an urgent message for your MP or councillors, you may find that you can locate direct email addresses on the official Parliament and council websites.

    Image: William Murphy (CC)

     

  6. Google’s election search – now powered by YourNextMP

    Have you ever typed a phrase like ‘what’s the time in New York’ or ‘what is 28 km in miles’ into Google? If you’ve done so in the last couple of years, you’ll have seen answers given on the results page itself, inside dedicated answer boxes.

    YourNextMP results on GoogleFor the next couple of weeks, Google users in Britain who search for key election data will see the answers presented in-page in this increasingly familiar way.

    We’re delighted to share the news that these answers are being supplied as open standard data from Democracy Club’s brilliant, volunteer-powered YourNextMP project, as well as our own long running TheyWorkForYou. The aim is to make information easily accessible to anyone who seeks it: we are one of a few data sources to be supplying Google.

    YNMP data on GoogleWe’re particularly excited about this because YourNextMP is powered by PopIt, a Poplus Component which is used to create nice clean open standards Popolo data on politicians.

    We think that adoption of open standards data by companies as big as Google points towards a promising world in which there is a lot more good quality, open standard data on political issues of all kinds.

    Try it for yourself: search for uk election candidates or a question like who can I vote for?

     

    How was this made possible?

    We’re so delighted to see essential civic data being brought to the search engine’s vast numbers of users. It’s all down to the power of open standards and re-usable open source software.

    YourNextMP provides feeds via an API, which are available for anyone—large organisations like Google, or individual people like you, perhaps—to use in their own projects.

    YourNextMP’s use of the Popolo open standard for government means that the data is clean, machine-readable and easy to slot in anywhere—including Google.

    Three cheers

    We think a few shout-outs are due. This simple but far-reaching usage of YourNextMP data is only possible because of many good people bringing good things together:

    • Democracy Club, and the huge amount of work that this volunteer-run organisation put in to gather and check candidate data
    • The many volunteers who gave their time in adding and refining that data
    • Popolo, driven by the work of James McKinney
    • Poplus, because YourNextMP is based on the people-and-positions storing Component, PopIt
    • Google.org, whose funding allowed the creation of Poplus in the first place.

    What YourNextMP has achieved

    Just as was hoped, YourNextMP data has been used to underpin a variety of projects by many individuals and organisations.

    Google may be the latest and the biggest, but we’re no less pleased to see how it has made possible numerous tools to educate or inform the public before the election, as well as powering stories and infographics in several national newspapers. See our previous post for more details on this.

    And there’s more. YourNextMP, because it’s built on Open Source code, won’t be going into hibernation until the next election in this country.

    The UK voting may be over on May 8, but there are elections all over the world still to come. Our friends in Latin America will be taking the code and adapting it for use in Argentina whose election process starts in August. ¡Viva YourNextMP!

     

     

  7. New poster to help with dog-fouling in your area

    fixmystreet-poop-posterIf you have a persistent problem with dog mess on your street, you might like to download this new poster from FixMyStreet and put it in your window—or even print out a few for your neighbours, too.

    Doggy mess is just one of the common street problems you can report on FixMyStreet, and this encourages residents to do just that.

    We hope you like this cheeky poop and his impassioned message. It’s the latest in a series of downloadable print-out materials from FixMyStreet: see the rest here.

     

  8. Have you seen YourNextMP lately?

    Back in December, we told you about a project to collect the details of every election candidate in the UK— YourNextMP.com.

    YourNextMP isn’t a mySociety project. It falls under the wide umbrella of Democracy Club, a loose confederation of volunteers doing interesting digital things, with the overarching aim of helping people be more informed before the election. We have, however, been lending our technical skills.

    That database now contains details of every candidate and we’re really glad to see that many projects have been built on the back of it, from national newspaper visualisations to voter advice applications to single-issue sites and more.

    Back in December, YourNextMP was a tool for crowd-sourced data-gathering. As well as providing free, open source data via its API, it has now matured into a useful static site in its own right. In a neat virtuous circle, it not only shows you who your candidates are, but also displays feeds from many of the sites using its own data.

    What does that mean? Go and input your postcode and you’ll find not only:

    • A list showing every prospective parliamentary candidate standing in your constituency, and including links to their Twitter stream, Facebook page, homepage and Wikipedia entry, where possible —

    but also:

    • Pictures of leaflets which have been delivered to residents in your constituency — from ElectionLeaflets.org, another crowdsourced project which is creating an archive of leaflets from all over the country, to stand as a permanent record of promises made pre-election
    • Details of where you can go and see your candidates speak  — from MeetYourNextMP.com, which crowdsources details of hustings in each area
    • CVs from your local candidates  — from Democracy Club’s CVs project
    • News stories which mention your constituency or candidates  — from electionmentions.com.

    In many cases, these sites are just like YourNextMP: they’re relying on the time and energy of people like you, to add information. They’ve all made it as easy as possible though, so whether you fancy snapping an election leaflet on your phone and uploading it, or asking your candidates to provide a CV, it really does only take a couple of minutes.

    You can also still continue to add more data (such as email addresses) to the candidates on YourNextMP, if you have time to contribute, and some basic Googling skills.

  9. So that was TICTeC 2015

    Group shotTICTeC 2015 was mySociety’s first annual conference on the impacts of civic tech. It was a great day, packed with ideas, debates, questions – and even some hard evidence!

    Even if you were there, it was impossible to attend every session, so we know you’ll be glad to hear that we captured a lot of it for posterity. You can see the full range of videos, audio interviews, slide decks and more on the TICTeC 2015 page.

    Since the conference, we’ve been spending time  reviewing how it went, emailing many of the attendees to continue the useful discussions we began on the day, and figuring out how to make next year’s TICTeC even better.

    We’ve also set up a TICTeC Google Group as a forum for civic tech research discussions. Do sign up if you would like to join in.

    We’ll be putting out a call for speakers for next year’s conference in October, so make sure you are signed up to the Research newsletter if you’d like to be the first to hear about it.

    Roll on TICTeC 2016!

  10. Can you believe everything you hear? Fact-checking claims ahead of the election

    Full Fact

    A whole lot of facts are going to be bandied about by politicians, between now and the General Election. How do you know which to believe?

    Fortunately, there’s an organisation that’s dedicated to checking every statement, so that you can see the bare facts with no added hyperbole.

    Our friends at Full Fact are working day and night, scanning mainstream media outlets (radio, television, newspapers) and what is said in Parliament, logging any sightings of claims made by politicians.

    Their researchers then provide a professional assessment of each claim, along with a verdict on whether it can be said to be supported by the relevant data, not supported, or whether there’s not enough information to prove it either way.

    With a large team consisting of volunteers and experts, such a large number of facts to be checked, plus the likelihood of the same facts being used by different parties in different ways to suit their agenda, it’s essential that Full Fact have systems in place to help them keep track. That’s where mySociety Services stepped in.

    We’ve created tools for their volunteers to log sightings of claims and for researchers to link theses claims to the data and provide an expert assessment. That means that when the same issues keep reappearing, Full Fact will know exactly where to look to find the relevant facts.

    At the same time we’ve had an opportunity to standardise and improve the organisation’s coding practices, ensuring that as Full Fact grow their own development team they’re able to work without stepping on each other’s toes.

    Check out Full Fact’s valuable work here – and if your organisation’s workflow could also benefit from some streamlining, take a look at what we offer on the mySociety Services site.