1. Introducing the first of TICTeC’s keynote speakers: Helen Milner OBE

    Helen MillnerTICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies. It’s a great chance to hear from researchers and practitioners right across the sector, from many different countries and with many different approaches.

    Not least among these will be our keynote speakers. Today, we’re delighted to announce the first of these: Helen Milner OBE, CEO of Tinder Foundation.

    Helen has had a long history in delivering training around the internet and particularly, as a means of addressing social exclusion.

    Hi Helen. Give us the elevator pitch: what will you be talking about at TICTeC, in a nutshell?

    Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?

    I’ll be putting a series of questions: is digital trying to fix outdated modes of democracy?

    Are people getting increasingly detached from politics and do they feel that democratic structures are impenetrable no matter how much politicians tweet?

    Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes? Or can communities co-design a better future for everyone using tech?

    There are lots of clever people developing democratic and civic tools and apps to help people have a voice—but unless people have the skills to get online, and to use these apps, they will remain the preserve of the digitally confident.

    I will be trying to answer some of these questions and discuss how our efforts can make maximum impact for most people most of the time – and leaving no-one behind.

    And why should people be excited by this?

    As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.

    As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.

    At Tinder Foundation, we’re committed to helping the 12.6 million people in the UK—and the next 3 billion around the world—who don’t have basic digital skills, and so who aren’t realising all of the benefits of the digital world.

    My work as a Commissioner for the UK Parliament’s Digital Democracy Commission brought me up close to the barriers of history and culture looking from the inside out.

    What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?

    Tinder Foundation’s ethos is very much about taking collaborative approach to extend our reach and ensure that our models of delivery are co-designed for social challenges, rather than assuming a one-size fits all approach.

    I’m excited about being part of the conversation so that together we can ensure that democratic and civic technology is accessible to everybody in society.

    Where does your passion for digital and social inclusion come from?

    In the UK there are still a shocking 12 million people—and 3 billion worldwide—who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.

    I went to school in south London where I was educated alongside people from all different backgrounds and have always believed in equality of opportunity. In the UK however, there are still a shocking 12 million people – and 3 billion worldwide – who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.

    By not helping these millions and billions of people gain we are further marginalising the most disadvantaged people in society as well as making it less easy for them to have a voice.

    My role on the Digital Democracy Commission presented recommendations about how everybody in society could engage with the democratic process via digital channels, for example the potential for online voting and a website to help make politics more accessible to those who aren’t currently engaging with politics (such as young people).

    The commission also made a strong case for investing in digital skills training in order to ensure that people can participate with a more digitised political system in future, and the same goes for civic tech.

    If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?

    Civic tech is about more than just technology—its evolution should be driven by a desire to include everyone and empowering everyone to participate in decision-making about matters that impact on them: community, housing, education, transport, the environment, budgets, et al.

    Unless there is a shared commitment towards ensuring everyone can engage with democratic and civic tech, the power to influence change in society will continue to be held in the hands of a committed few.

    You won’t want to miss what Helen has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now. Earlybird pricing runs until February 19.

  2. You asked for it: new voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    We recently added an Environment section to voting pages on TheyWorkForYou, so now you can see exactly how your MP voted on issues like fracking, measures to prevent climate change, and green energy, all in one place, like this:

    David Cameron's voting record on the environment

    Votes on environmental issues are clearly a priority for our users. They’ve been one of the most-requested additions in the TheyWorkForYou postbag over the last couple of years, and we’re glad to have fulfilled those requests, even if it took a while.

    At the same time, we’ve also made several other additions to existing sections on voting pages, so now you can check how your MP has voted in these areas:

    • Assisted dying
    • Trade union regulation
    • Taxation of banks
    • Enforcement of immigration rules
    • MPs’ veto over laws only affecting their part of the UK (AKA English votes for English laws)

    To check your own MP’s voting record, head over to TheyWorkForYou.com, and input your postcode on the homepage. Then click ‘voting record’ at the top of your MP’s page.

    If you have strong opinions about how your MP voted on any issue, don’t forget, you can let them know by clicking on ‘Send a Message’, which will take you over to WriteToThem.com.

     

    Image: Paul (CC)

  3. How SocialCareInfo matches people to resources

    socialcareinfo - homepage

    It’s great to see the launch of SocialCareInfo, a new website which helps people in the UK find local & national social care resources.

    All the more so because it uses one of our tools, MapIt, to match postcodes with the relevant local authorities. The site’s builders, Lasa, came to us when it became clear that MapIt did exactly what they needed.

    Socialcareinfo.net covers the whole of the UK. Users begin by typing in their postcode, whereupon they are shown the range of services available to them.

    SocialCareInfo map page

    That’s also how many of our own projects (think FixMyStreet, WriteToThem or TheyWorkForYou) begin, and there’s a good reason for that: users are far more likely to know their own postcode than to be certain about which local authority they fall under, or even who their MP is.

    MapIt is really handy for exactly this kind of usage, where you need to match a person to a constituency or governing body. It looks at which boundaries the geographic input falls within, and it returns the relevant authorities.

    We’re glad to see it working so well for SocialCareInfo, and we feel sure that the site will prove a useful resource for the UK.

  4. Timing is everything: why we’re publishing in June

    It’s around this time of year that we normally publish our responsiveness statistics on WriteToThem. However, if you’ve been looking forward to seeing your MP’s ranking, we’re afraid you’ll have to wait a little longer.

    Two weeks after you use WriteToThem to contact a representative, we send you an automated email to check whether or not you received a response. The data gathered by these questionnaires gives us a snapshot of how well the site is working for its users; it also allows us to highlight which MPs, which parties, and which parliamentary bodies do the best and worst at responding to constituents’ messages.

    We’ve habitually analysed  a calendar year of responses, January to December. Last year, though, was an election year, meaning that several MPs were active up until May, and then several new MPs took their seats in the new Parliament. So we’re going to run the data in June, looking at May 2015 to May 2016, followed by a four-week period to ensure we’ve received all the questionnaires.

    Now, in theory, it shouldn’t matter too much, because we rank MPs by the percentage of mail sent through WriteToThem that they respond to (or more accurately, that our users tell us they have responded to). An MP may have responded to 100% of all their mail and then been voted out; their successor may then respond to 10% of their mail: both MPs would be ranked accordingly.

    In fact, that’s how we did it for 2005, the first year for which we published WriteToThem rankings, and also an election year*.

    But shifting the date like this means that the data will be less confusing. It’ll let us see how every current MP has performed, in terms of responsiveness, across a full year.

    Of course, one side effect of this is that if you’re an MP and you want to be top of the pops, you have an extra five months in which to boost your score… so, on your marks, time to get writing!

     

    Image: Debb Collins (CC)

     

    *2010 fell within a four-year period during which we didn’t publish rankings.

  5. Extension of the Freedom of Information Act in Scotland

    Should you be able to request information from private companies who perform the public function of running prisons? How about independent schools which receive public funding?

    Such questions were at the heart of a consultation from the Scottish Government last year, which asked whether the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act of 2002 should be extended to cover more bodies. These were:

    • Contractors who run privately-managed prisons
    • Providers of secure accommodation for children
    • Grant-aided schools
    • Independent special schools

    The WhatDoTheyKnow team responded to the consultation with arguments in favour of the extension of the Act to cover all such bodies: you can read the team’s full response here (including an explanation of why bodies which are not subject to the FOI Act have sometimes been added to the site).

    We’re glad to say that the consultation committee were seemingly in accord with those views, and all the bodies consulted on will become subject to the Scottish FOI Act from 1 September 2016 (subject to Scottish parliamentary process). In their response, which can be viewed on the consultation page, WhatDoTheyKnow were mentioned in relation to private prison contractors:

    We also note the response from WhatDoTheyKnow (…) who strongly supported extension to private prison contractors given their view that the detention of individuals in custody under order or sentence of the courts was undoubtedly a public function.

    Meanwhile, we await developments on the UK Freedom of Information consultation, which we also submitted to. Apparently they are analysing feedback and will be hearing oral evidence from some parties next week, with an intention ‘to report as soon as possible after these sessions’. So, not long now.


    Image: Angela Mudge (CC)

  6. Do a friend a favour: point them towards the Donald Trump debate

    In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday Parliament debated whether Donald Trump should be barred entry to the UK.

    This is a bit of an occasion, because the first petition has been signed by more people than any other in this Parliament. It has 573,971 signatures, and its title is “Block Donald J Trump from UK entry”. The second petition is titled “Don’t ban Trump from the United Kingdom”. That petition is curious. It has 42,898 signatures, but 30,000 signatures were removed because they were thought to be suspect and coming from one source.

    Now, regular TheyWorkForYou readers know that parliamentary debates are often interesting, sometimes thought-provoking, and occasionally amusing. The Trump debate is a great example of all of those things.

    But most people see the goings-on in Parliament as very dull. Today, you might want to do someone a favour, and point them towards this particular debate, which you can see in full here.

    As always with TheyWorkForYou content, it’s easy to search, share or link to any individual section. And as if that’s not enough, this debate contains the only use of the word wazzock yet recorded in Parliament. Now that’s got to be worth a share.

     

    Image: Michael Vadon (CC)

  7. When MPs are absent: the difference between the UK and Ghana

    At TheyWorkForYou, we recently received an email from a novelist who was researching a historical work. She wanted to know whether a certain MP would have been present in the House of Commons on a specific date in 1953.

    We had to reply that the only way to be sure was if he had spoken or voted on the date in question.

    Perhaps strangely, Parliament does not keep official records of MPs’ attendance — nor are there lower limits on how many times an MP must be present in order to keep their position, although their own party will have strong feelings about their attendance.

    So, in terms of an official record, the only way to be sure that an MP was in the House on a specific date is if they spoke, or voted, both of which actions are of course reflected in Hansard and on TheyWorkForYou.

    Things are, it seems, quite different in Ghana, where the TheyWorkForYou equivalent, Odekro, has recently drawn attention to its country’s non-attending MPs. Odekro runs on our parliamentary-monitoring platform, Pombola.

    In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, they point out that 125 MPs, or 45.2% of the house, failed to meet the constitution’s requirement for attendance, having been absent for more than 15 days of proceedings. If the MPs are unable to give reasonable explanations for their absence, Odekro is calling for their seats to be declared absent:

    If the court order is granted and/or the Speaker declares these seats vacant, the practical result would be that many of the MPs who were recently re-elected by the NDC and NPP as Parliamentary candidates will have to contest by-elections to retain their seats, before the general election in November 2016. Source: Modern Ghana

    It’s a fascinating situation, and one we’ll be watching with interest – even if the data that would allow for a similar campaign doesn’t exist here in the UK.

    Edited to add: Here’s Odekro’s more in-depth blog post on the matter.

    Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

  8. Have our sites helped you? Then please help us

    Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?

    FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou all provide an easy way for you, the public, to hold our elected representatives to account. They give you the power to get things changed.

    You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.

    Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.

    That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.

    If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.

    Donate now


    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

  9. New year, new job? Come and join mySociety

    If the idea of getting up and going to the same old job in 2016 is beginning to seem like an unappealing prospect, then you should know that we are looking for a Systems Administrator.

    Working at mySociety is a bit different from your average job, as we tried to convey in this video. We work mainly from home (or the workspace of your choice), meeting up at regular intervals across the UK. Hours are very flexible. We’re a small, super-friendly bunch of people who like talking tech.

    And then there’s the actual work. It does good in the world. That certainly gets us out of bed in the mornings.

    You can see all the details of the position here. You’ll need experience of Linux server administration, scripting, Puppet and Nagios, and your main duties will be ensuring security and integrity of our servers, maintaining our infrastructure, and basically keeping all the plates spinning nicely.

    If that sounds up your street, everything you need for your application is here.

    And if not, do us a favour, and pass it on.

     

    Image: DonkerDink (CC)

  10. Stats, technology and at least one really bad joke about tapirs: the mySociety year in review

    If you’re wondering what a year in Civic Tech looks like, well, here’s the answer:
    plenty of coding, video calls with partners around the world, the occasional conference, and tea. Lots of tea.

    Oh, and then there’s the annual treat of posing for the team photo on a windy winter’s day. That’s us, above. Damp. Cold. Still believing in the transformative power of digital technologies.

    We bundled it all together, with plenty of stats, a couple of jokes, and tweets from some of our happy users.

    Here’s the result. Sit back and enjoy the mySociety Year in Review, 2015.

     

    Read the 2015 mySociety Annual Report