International Women’s Day seems like a good time to check in on our project Gender Balance, the crowdsourcing website that invites users to help gather gender data on the world’s politicians.
As you may recall, our aim was not simply to present top-level numbers: data already existed that allows us to, say, understand which legislatures have the most even-handed representation, genderwise.
No, Gender Balance seeks to go more in-depth: by attaching gender data to individual politicians, and making that data available via structured datasets, we hope to allow for more subtle comparisons to be made.
For example, researchers may like to test theories such as, ‘do women vote differently from men?’, or ‘do women politicians make different laws around childcare?’ — or a whole host of other questions, all of which can only be answered when gender data relates to specific public figures, or when it is viewed in combination with other data.
The data that is collected when you play Gender Balance goes, with data from other sources, into EveryPolitician, our project that seeks to provide structured, downloadable, open information across all the world’s legislatures.
Not right away, mind you. To ensure that the data really is accurate, we make sure that each politician on Gender Balance is presented to at least five different players, all of whom give the same answer, before we consider it verified.
EveryPolitician currently contains data for about 73,000 politicians in total. In some cases, that data came to us along with a trusted gender field, so we don’t need to run that through the Gender Balance mill, but the majority of parliamentary sites don’t provide this data.
We can sometimes obtain that information from other sources, but Gender Balance has been invaluable in filling in lots of the gaps. Thanks to our players, it has already provided us with gender information for over 30,000 politicians (and in some cases, pointed out discrepancies in the data we obtained from elsewhere).
There’s still plenty to go, though, if you’d like to help; and, as elections happen around the world, Gender Balance will continue to refresh with any politicians for whom we can’t find trusted gender data. As we speak, approximately 22,000 politicians still need sorting.
That might sound like quite a lot, but each politician need only take seconds — and every little helps. So, if you’d like to help contribute a little more gender data, just step this way.
Image: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the valedictory session of the National Conference of Women Legislators in Parliament House CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Last time we updated you about Alaveteli professional, the Freedom of Information toolset for journalists that we’re building, we were just coming out of our discovery phase.
Since then, we’ve made strides through the alpha and early beta part of our development process. In alpha, the idea is to build dummy versions of the tool that work in the minimum way possible — no bells and whistles — to test concepts, and our assumptions. Having thought hard about the potential problems of Alaveteli Professional, now is the time for us to try the approaches that we believe will solve them, by making prototypes of how the tool might work and testing them with a very small group of users.
In the early stages of beta, our priority has been to get to the point where a Freedom of Information request can go through all its various processes, from composition to response, with the features that a journalist user would need. Once that’s in place, it allows us to add other features on top and see how they would integrate.
This pattern — discovery, alpha, beta, release — is a well-tested method by which to produce a final product that works as it should, while avoiding costly mistakes.
Alpha and beta testing, perhaps unexcitingly, are all about the reduction of risk: in the words of the startup mantra, it’s good to ‘fail fast’— or rather, it’s better to know early on if something doesn’t work, rather than spend time and money on something that doesn’t fit the bill.
So, for Alaveteli Professional, what are the risks that have been keeping us awake at night?
We think the biggest priority is to ensure that there’s actually added value for journalists in using a service like this. Clearly, the Freedom of Information process is already available to all, whether via our own site WhatDoTheyKnow, or directly.
We need to be able to demonstrate tangible benefits: that Alaveteli Professional can save journalists time; help them be more efficient in managing their requests; maybe help them get information that otherwise wouldn’t be released; and give them access to rich data they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.
For all we said about failing fast, the alpha phase also meant committing to some fairly big technical decisions that, ideally, we wouldn’t like to reverse.
Decisions like, do we build the service into the existing Alaveteli codebase, or go for a new standalone one (we went for the former)? From the user’s point of view, should Alaveteli Professional look like a totally different site, or like a registration-only part of WhatDoTheyKnow (we chose the latter)?
And onto beta
As we move from alpha to beta, we’re finding out what happens when real users make real requests through the service, and making adjustments based on their feedback.
What do they think of the way we’ve implemented the ability to embargo requests – does it make sense to them? Do they trust us to keep embargoed requests private? Are they able to navigate between different interfaces in a way that seems intuitive? mySociety designer Martin has been figuring out how to take the cognitive load off the user and give them just the information they need, when they need it.
We’re also returning to prototyping mode to work out how to implement new features, like the ability to send round robin requests to multiple authorities, in an effective and responsible way. The other half of our design team, Zarino, has been showing us that a slideshow in presentation mode can be an effective tool for demonstrating how users might interact with an interface.
As we continue to round out the feature set in the UK, we’re also cooking up plans in the Czech Republic so that later in the year we can present the tools to a new audience of journalists there and again, use their feedback to make the tools more flexible so that they can be used in different jurisdictions.
As you can see, there’s lots going on, and we’re all really excited to be finally getting some real life users in front of the tools that we’ve been thinking about, and working on, for so many weeks. Don’t forget to sign up to the mailing list if you’d like to keep up with Alaveteli Professional as it develops.
There’s a new piece of data on MapIt, and it wasn’t added by us. It’s tiny but useful, and it’s slightly esoteric, so bear with us and we’ll explain why it’s worth your attention.
Local Authority codes come from the government’s set of canonical registers. They may not look much, but they’re part of a drive to bring consistency across a wide range of data sets. That’s important, and we’ll try to explain why.
One name can refer to more than one thing
If you try to buy a train ticket to Gillingham in the UK, and you are lucky enough to be served by a conscientious member of staff, they will check whether you are going to the Gillingham in Kent (GIL), or the one in Dorset (GLM).
The names of the two towns might be identical, but their three-letter station codes differ, and quite right too — how, otherwise, would the railway systems be able to charge the right fare? And more importantly, how many people would set off confidently to their destination, but end up in the wrong county?
I mention this purely to illustrate the importance of authoritative, consistent data, the principle that is currently driving a government-wide initiative to ensure that there’s a single canonical code for prisons, schools, companies, and all kinds of other categories of places and organisations.
Of particular interest to us at mySociety? Local authorities. That’s because several of our services, from FixMyStreet to WriteToThem, rely on MapIt to connect the user to the correct council, based on their geographical position.
One thing can have more than one name
I live within the boundaries of Brighton and Hove City Council.
That’s its official name, but when talking or writing about my local authority, I’m much more likely to call it ‘Brighton’, ‘Brighton Council’, or at a push, ‘Brighton & Hove Council’. All of which is fine within everyday conversation, but which is an approach which could cause mayhem for the kind of data that digital systems need (“machine readable” data, which is consistent, structured and in a format which can be ‘understood’ by computer programs).
Registers of Open Data
The two examples above go some way towards explaining why the Department for Local Government & Communities, with Government Digital Services (GDS), are in the process of creating absolute standards, not just for councils but for every outpost of their diverse and extensive set of responsibilities, from the Food Standards Agency to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Land Registry and beyond.
Where possible, these registers are published and shared as Open Data that anyone can use. It’s all part of GDS’ push towards ‘government as a platform’, and in keeping with the work being done towards providing Open Data throughout the organisation. Where possible these registers are openly available, and can be used by anyone building apps, websites and systems.
And now we come to those Local Authority codes that you can find on MapIt.
Anyone can contribute to Open Source code
Like most mySociety codebases, MapIt is Open Source.
That means that not only can anyone pick up the code and use it for their own purposes, for free, but that they’re also welcome to submit changes or extensions to the existing code.
And that’s just how GDS’ Sym Roe submitted the addition of the register.
What it all means for you
If you’re a developer, the addition of these codes means that you can use MapIt in your app or web service, and be absolutely sure that it will integrate with any other dataset that’s using the same codes. So, no more guessing whether our ‘Plymouth’ is the same as the ‘Plymouth’ in your database; the three-letter code tells you that it is.
Plus, these register codes identify a local authority as an organisation, or a legal entity, as opposed to setting out the boundary, so that’s an extra layer of information which we are glad to be able to include.
The Police Federation of England and Wales is the latest body to be added to WhatDoTheyKnow.
Thanks to the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which came into force on January 31, the Federation is now subject to Freedom of Information. That means that if you make a request for information which they hold, under most circumstances they must provide it.
These new responsibilities were announced by Theresa May back in 2014 when she was Home Secretary:
I will bring forward proposals to make the Police Federation – that is, the national organisation and all the regional branches – subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
I know that some of you will find these changes unpalatable. In particular, I know that some of you will find the Freedom of Information Act an unwelcome intrusion. But the Police Federation is an organisation created by statute, it serves a public function and the Normington Review demonstrated very clearly that it is an organisation in need of greater transparency and accountability. So it is a change that I believe needs to be made.
Whether it was found unpalatable or not — it happened. Accordingly, that’s now reflected on WhatDoTheyKnow, so if you have a burning question for the Federation, now is the time to ask.
It’s a little-known fact that FixMyStreet was originally called Neighbourhood Fix-It. Launching the site was a good idea, but changing that name may be the next best thing we ever did.
Ten years on, the site has processed over 900,000 reports, sending them to every local authority in the UK. In doing so, it helps citizens take an active part in keeping their own local communities clean, safe and functional. Meanwhile it ensures that you, the user, never have to give a second thought to which council needs to receive which type of report.
It’s been adopted as several councils’ primary fault-reporting interface on their own websites, from Bristol to Oxfordshire and even Zürich, and we’ve worked in partnership with these authorities to develop new features that make it as useful and simple to use as possible. Watch this space, as we’ll be talking a lot more about these soon.
FixMyStreet continues to surprise even us. Thanks to its remarkable flexibility, the codebase has also been used to underpin a number of other projects, including Collideoscope, where you can report cycling collisions and near misses, and the Channel 4 tie-in, the Empty Homes Spotter. We know there will be many more to come.
So, here’s to FixMyStreet. At heart, it’s a little site that matches a pin on a map with the body that’s responsible for that location. But when you consider what it’s achieved — getting communities fixed up, making council reporting interfaces more user-friendly, empowering people to take their first steps into local participation, even challenging corruption — well, we hope you’ll see why we’re proud of how far FixMyStreet has come.
Audrey is Taiwan’s Minister for Digital, and is part of a massive shake-up that has seen that country embrace unprecedented levels of transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Her keynote will describe some of the ground-breaking methods they’ve introduced.
One of these is Audrey’s famous accessibility. Using a public platform, she is happy to answer questions from anyone, and endeavours to do so within 48 hours. We posed ours there, but we’re replicating them below for our readers to follow.
Such is her schedule that Audrey will be delivering her keynote virtually, but there will be an opportunity for delegates to put questions to her live. Accordingly, we’ve gone a little more in-depth with this conversation.
Why haven’t we in the West heard more about the transformations that have been happening in Taiwan? They really are so ground-breaking — do you have any idea why they might not have received more global coverage?
There is reasonable regional coverage in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. However, global awareness is limited by Taiwan’s restricted participation in multilateral organisations, as well as the relative lack of English material (somewhat ameliorated by recent advances in machine translation).
How would we go about encouraging our own governments to follow in your footsteps? You visited the UK Parliament recently: what was your perception of how they are doing on the Open Government front?
While rules, playbooks and tools are reusable, each government’s political context is unique, so I would encourage everyone to pave their own path instead.
I didn’t stay long enough to learn about UK’s progress — looking forward to learn more from mySociety folks in the future, perhaps when TICTeC comes to Asia. 🙂
TICTeC is all about measuring the impact of civic technologies. Do you have systems in place that help you assess the effectiveness of the measures you put in place?
Yes, there are quantitative engagement metrics and surveys, though they are mostly in Chinese — for example for the petition platform [opens as document; in Chinese].
Clearly, it’s early days yet, but have your implementations been an unqualified success?
For the past 100 days, our main contributions are proceeding well — providing an internal collaboration platform (sandstorm.io) for participation officers from every ministry; requiring all regulations and trade-related laws to be open for public discussion (join.gov.tw); as well as help codifying an open multi-stakeholder mechanism into the draft of Digital Communications Act.
What feedback have you had from citizens and the national press?
In Taiwan’s post-2014 political climate, mainstream press and citizens would never call for “less transparency”, so people mostly respond favourably — of course, there are calls for more accountability and more informed participation, for meaningful conversations to form around divisive issues.
What proportion of the population has taken part in your crowd-sourcing projects? Do you worry about the elderly or less connected not being sufficiently represented in decision-making?
As a proponent of assistive civic tech, it is important that we seek diversity of opinion (not zero-sum voting) and each engagement venue opens up access for previously unavailable folks (not taking existing venues away) — see this write-up by LÜ Chia-Hua.
Of course, even in a democracy of feelings, there will still be some people who lose out, or see a decision that doesn’t go the way they wanted. Are you sensing more understanding from these people, since they’ve gone through the online debates process?
Yes. Generally we come up with rough consensus that people can live with — as long as the procedure are transparent and accountable, we are seeing people who did not get what they initially demanded nevertheless help defending the result.
How stressful is it for a human being to hold themself up to constant public scrutiny? Transparency is of course a laudable aim, but might it sometimes be at the cost of a person’s own downtime or privacy?
Private meetings and on-the-record transcripts are fully compatible; note that we allow each participant to make corrections for ten days after the meeting: here are our guidelines.
A large proportion of Taiwanese politicians are Independents. Do you think party politics is now an outdated system?
In the cabinet there are more independents than members of any party, but in the parliament every party has more MPs than independents.
How can digital technologies bridge the gap between citizen and state without simply reverting to irrelevant soundbite politics or Twitter trolling?
We need to partner with (and become) media to make relevant facts as easy — and eventually easier — to spread.
What is the importance of TICTeC? Why assess the impact of civic technologies?
Informed discussions need to be rooted in evidence. If we are to build a global democratic network of feelings, we need to make sure that these feelings are reflective — this is only possible when they are built upon facts.
Finally: what are your next steps? Are there any more big innovations you plan to introduce during your time in cabinet?
For scalable listening to work, we need to engage people who prefer interactive & tangible understanding, including children. This post outlines the initial steps; and this one outlines the main vision.
Book your place at TICTeC
If you enjoyed reading this interview, it’s time to book your ticket for TICTeC, where every conversation will directly examine the impacts of civic technologies.
And for those who would like to present their own insights, better hurry: the call for papers runs until February 10.
We recently explained how to use pre-written Freedom of Information requests for a campaign. We’re glad to see this being used by AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site for Europe.
Today, AskTheEU launches a campaign to request the travel expenses of EU Commissioners — and they are calling on the public to help submit a total of 168 requests.
No matter what your feeling are towards the EU (let’s not even go there), we hope that everyone is in favour of transparency. AskTheEU’s campaign follows the discovery from a request that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent €63,000 on an air taxi to Turkey for the G20 summit. Naturally, they were keen to know whether this level of spending is replicated across the organisation.
After a two-year battle, AskTheEU’s parent organisation Access Info has established that the European Commission will provide information on Commissioner’s travel expenses, but only in two-month bundles.
They’ve already made a start: after submitting legal appeals and new requests, Access Info won access to a handful of documents about the travel expenses of five Commissioners: these can be seen here.
But there’s plenty more to discover, and that’s where the general public comes in. Thanks to the pre-written requests function, all the hard work is already done: it’s just a matter of picking one or two time periods and submitting the already-composed request.
Anyone can participate by going to the campaign website from today. All requests and responses will be made public on AsktheEU.
Last week, we announced the keynote speakers for TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technology conference 2017.
Now we’re going to look at each of them in more depth, starting with Tiago Carneiro Peixoto of the World Bank. His keynote is titled (Un)Civic Tech? and will be looking at how sometimes, despite high hopes, civic technologies don’t deliver everything that’s been hoped for.
Most importantly, Tiago will examine the tangible effects of civic tech on participation, inclusiveness, and governmental action — and then go on to outline which research agendas we should be pursuing now.
We zipped a few questions across to Tiago and he was happy to give us some answers.
(Un)Civic Tech? — that’s quite a bold title, given that your listeners will all be people working in the arena of Civic Tech and with a strong belief in its power to do good! Should we be worried?
Actually my initial title was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Civic Tech”, so it’s not all just bad and ugly. But no, you shouldn’t be worried. Unless you are extremely prone to confirmation bias!
TICTeC is all about assessing the impacts of Civic Technology, making you a particularly relevant speaker. What measures does the World Bank have in place in order to assess the impact of the work that it does?
The measures depend on the problem at hand.
But some of the recurrent measures we look at are related to the effects of technology on uptake, inclusiveness, citizens’ decision-making, and governments’ responsiveness.
For those who are getting started on the subject, I would suggest taking a look at one of our recent publications, Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide.
It’s time to focus on government responsiveness.
Part of our work can also be found at the Open Government Research Exchange, which is a partnership between GovLab, mySociety, and the World Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team.
But the best illustration of our measures and findings — which will be presented later this year — are not public yet. So, for those who would like to see it first-hand, I would suggest they come to Florence for TICTeC.
What do you perceive to be the value of TICTeC?
One of the key values of TICTeC is that it is convened by mySociety — which, since its creation, has been one of the leading organisations actually doing civic technology work.
The curation of the conference by mySociety’s team, combined with mySociety’s reputation and network, naturally tends to draw the participation of high-level researchers who are more likely to be dealing with concrete problems in the civic tech space.
What are you looking forward to getting out of the conference yourself?
Of course, I’m very curious to see the research that will be presented at the conference, and how it has evolved in relationship to previous conferences.
I am also very interested in meeting new researchers and exploring venues for collaboration with them. But I hope that the conference is also an opportunity to collectively move towards a more coordinated and problem-driven research agenda.
TICTeC brings together researchers and practitioners in Civic Tech. If you could give a single message to the community, what would it be?
It’s time to focus on government responsiveness.
You’ve done some interesting work with FixMyStreet data. What did you discover there?
We are happy to have conducted what is, to our knowledge, the first empirical work examining the effect of government responsiveness on citizens’ participation.
The fact that we did this in collaboration with mySociety and using FixMyStreet data is something we are particularly proud of.
We are now looking into other issues, such as predictors of government responsiveness. In other words, what makes governments “tick”? Does it matter who you are for governments to respond?
While these may seem like trivial questions, they have important implications for the design and performance of solutions like FixMyStreet. I don’t want to anticipate our preliminary findings now, but I will certainly do so at TICTeC.
So there you have it: several more good reasons to book your ticket for TICTeC now.
Or, if you have something to say, why not submit an abstract?
You can be sure of seeing thought-provoking speakers at TICTeC, all focusing on the vital area of researching the impacts of Civic Technologies. We put a lot of effort into making sure of that!
And we especially strive to bring you keynote speakers who are inspiring, insightful, surprising… in some cases even provocative. You may still recall last year’s keynote Helen Milner asking ‘Is Civic Tech just an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?’.
For TICTeC 2017, we can promise keynotes that are just as compelling. We’re delighted to say that each day’s proceedings will be kicked off by Tiago Carneiro Peixoto and Audrey Tang.
Tiago Carneiro Peixoto
Tiago is from the World Bank, which has the ambitious mission of reducing world poverty.
As a Senior Public Sector Specialist, Tiago works with governments to develop solutions for better public policies and services. As you might expect, that involves research around technology, citizen engagement and governance, to help understand how those things can intersect for the good of all. One example of that is the research using FixMyStreet reports, which demonstrated how government responsiveness can lead to citizens becoming more engaged.
If you’d like further reason to pay attention to his keynote, well, Tiago was featured in TechCrunch as one of the twenty most innovative people in democracy. We know he’ll have plenty to say that is of direct interest to TICTeC delegates.
In her inauguration speech, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said, “Before, democracy was a clash between two opposing values, but now democracy must be a conversation, a dialogue, between many different values”. To help bring about this vision, she appointed Audrey Tang as Minister for Digital in her new cabinet.
If you think parliamentary proceedings can be as dull as ditchwater, you may be in for a surprise. Audrey was not a standard appointment: she comes from a background of activist hacking, for one thing.
Since her arrival in August 2016, the government has undergone a colossal transformation into one of the most open and participatory administrations operating in the world today, ranking top in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index.
Audrey will be running through some of those groundbreaking changes in her keynote at TICTeC. Note that she’ll be ‘appearing’ virtually — she’s very much in demand — but there will still be the opportunity to pose questions to her live.
Stand by, as we’ll shortly profile our two keynotes further. For now, we hope your appetite has been suitably whetted.
If you’re interested in presenting a session or workshop at TICTeC, see the Call for Papers here — and submit before February 10.
Registration to attend is available at the earlybird price until March 10 — book here.
Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.
The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.