In June this year, a Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was appointed. Submissions of written evidence were invited, and of course, this being very much our area, we felt the need to contribute.
Our written evidence is a fairly quick read. Nonetheless we hope that it gets the essential points across, drawing on our experience in what works and what doesn’t in technology for civic engagement.
You can view all the submissions the inquiry received on the Parliament website. The committee will report their findings by the end of March next year.
When you send a Freedom of Information request through WhatDoTheyKnow.com, every part of the exchange is published online. Those who have browsed the site will know that you can read the correspondence around each request from beginning to end, including the initial enquiry, auto-replies, any holding letters, messages seeking clarification, and finally, the response — or refusal.
We built the site so that, when information was released, that information would be available for everyone. The result is the massive online archive, all searchable, that you can find on WhatDoTheyKnow today. That being the case, why do we bother publishing out all the rest of the correspondence? Why not simply publish the end result, that is, the actual information?
Well, we believe there’s value even in what you might consider the ephemera of everything else, not least that it helps demystify the various steps of the FOI process.
This week, an article by ‘FOIMan’ Paul Gibbons showed that the publication of this material can also help with research. He was able to look at 250 ‘refusal notices’ — that is, times when authorities had turned down requests for information — and pull out examples of best and worst practice.
The result will benefit us all, from those requesting information to those who process the requests: for the former, it sets out what to expect from a refusal, and for the latter, it highlights how to ensure that you are sticking to the law as well as ensuring a good experience for the public.
A refusal, as Gibbons points out, does not have to be a shutting of the gates in the face of the requester: it can help educate, point people towards a better means of obtaining the information they need, or even clarify for the FOI officer where withholding the information may in fact be inappropriate. We’re very glad to have seen our data being used in this way.
There are multiple opportunities to see mySociety people speaking in the coming weeks. From Wikidata to web design — and plenty more — they cover a broad spectrum. So if any of these events interest you, we hope you’ll come along!
17 October, Bristol
Rebecca Rumbul, our Head of Research, will be giving an overview of our work on the impact of Civic Technologies. It’s part of the Venturefest Smart Cities Thought Leadership conference at the Watershed in Bristol. Register for attendance here.
21-22 October, Belfast
Tony Bowden who’s been leading on EveryPolitician, and Head of Product Matt Jukes will both be attending Open Data Camp. It’s an unconference, meaning sessions have not yet been set, but if enough people are interested you may well hear all about mySociety’s hopes for the Democratic Commons and how our EveryPolitician project fits into that. Otherwise, grab Matt and Tony for a chat! More details here.
28-29 October, Berlin
WikidataCon is a must-visit for us, given the collaboration between our own EveryPolitician project and the Wikidata community. We’ll be running a couple of sessions: one on whether structured politician data for the whole world is an impossible utopia and one informal meet-up to share experiences in gathering politician data.
And of course the conference info takes the form of a Wiki!
2 November, Bristol again
More from Matt Jukes, who this time will be speaking at the Agile in the City. What lessons has he learned from working in very different organisations, all of which implemented ‘agile’ very differently? More details here.
4 November, Oslo
That Matt Jukes again! He gets about. This time he’s speaking at The Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit (FSCONS), “a meeting place for social change, focused on the intersection between technology, culture and society.” He’ll be discussing ‘the importance of being open’ in his 6pm session. All the information you need is here.
9 November, York
Poor connectivity, low bandwidth, different platforms and cultural no-nos: mySociety designer Zarino Zappia runs through some of the considerations when designing websites for international usage at DotYork. We have a limited number of discounted tickets we can give out, so if you’re interested drop Zarino a line.
17 November, Tirana, Albania
Rebecca is a keynote speaker at an event jointly-organised by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) and the ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), “Leveraging New Technologies to Transform Youth Political Participation” — something we’ve been thinking about rather a lot recently. Details will be added here.
Well, that’s certainly enough to be getting on with. We hope we’ll see you at one or more of these events.
Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.
Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.
A platform for consumer complaints
The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.
Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.
As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?
Probing travel expenses
Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.
If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.
The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.
That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.
Our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, WhatDoTheyKnowPro, will have its official launch very soon — and we’re glad to see that it’s already beginning to help generate high-profile news stories based on FOI requests.
During development, several journalists have been putting it through its paces and offering us invaluable feedback which has helped us shape the service — and meanwhile their activity is also uncovering stories of genuine interest. These give a taste of exactly what kind of investigative stories can be supported by WhatDoTheyKnowPro, which makes requests to multiple bodies simpler, as well as organising the responses so that they’re easier to manage.
Here are the WhatDoTheyKnowPro-generated stories we’ve heard about so far:
Student Brexit campaign received ‘as much funding as necessary to win’
Open Democracy and the Ferret uncovered how Vote Leave used a loophole to funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds through a student’s small-scale campaign. The story was subsequently run by multiple other news outlets and legal proceedings towards a judicial review have begun.
British police trained officers in repressive regimes
Scrutiny of documents from the College of Policing revealed that much of its income was coming from countries where there is concern about human rights. The story, by Lucas Amin, was run by the Guardian in September.
Public servants and Scottish ministers paid thousands of pounds to dine with Obama
Investigative journalism platform the Ferret uncovered this story in July, detailing how much public money was spent on senior staff attending a charity dinner with Barack Obama.
Links between Mark Hoban and Price Waterhouse Cooper
The Times and the Daily Mail both ran this story from Patrick Hosking, which revealed the former financial secretary’s ‘forgetfulness’ over prior links with Price Waterhouse Cooper.
Infighting in UKIP over the name Patriotic Alliance
Both anti-far right activists and UKIP officials tried to stop Arron Banks from registering a new political party called the Patriotic Alliance, another story run by the Ferret revealed.
Where British holiday-makers get arrested most often
Back in June, this story by analysed figures from the FCO on where Brits had been detained and obtained consular support, allowing them to state which countries had the most arrests, and how figures had changed over time. The story ran in the Birmingham Mail and was also picked up by other publications in the Trinity Mirror Group.James Rodger
We’re delighted to see such good use being made of WhatDoTheyKnowPro, and we anticipate many more stories emerging once it has fully launched.
We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.
New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.
The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.
Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.
A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!
Leaflets and posters for schools
We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.
While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.
We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).
It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.
Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.
We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.
Top image: Thomas William
Earlier this month, Mark laid out the concept of a Democratic Commons for the Civic Tech community: shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit.
He also talked about exploring new models for funding the kind of work that we do in our Democracy practice at mySociety.
For many years, our Better Cities work has been proof of concept for one such model: we provide data and software as a service (FixMyStreet, MapIt, Mapumental) to paid clients, the revenue from which then funds our charitable projects. Could a similar system work to sustain our Democracy practice?
That’s the hope, and with Facebook who we first worked with during the UK General Election in June, providing the data that helped people see and connect with their elected representatives, we’ve already seen it in action.
This kind of project is positive on multiple levels: it brings us an income, it brings the benefits of democratic engagement to a wider audience than we could reach on our own, and it contributes data back into EveryPolitician and Wikidata, that everyone can use.
The UK election was only the first for which we did this work: we’ve gone on to provide the same service for the French elections and more recently for the rather more eventful Kenyan ones — currently on hold as we await the re-run of the Presidential election next month. And now we’re doing the same for the German elections, where candidate data is being shared this week.
As we’re learning, this is definitely not one-size-fits-all work, and each country has brought its own interesting challenges. We’re learning as we go along — for example, one significant (and perhaps obvious) factor is how much easier it is to work with partners in-country who have a better understanding of the sometimes complex political system and candidates than we can ever hope to pick up. Much as we might enjoy the process, there’s little point in our spending days knee-deep in research, when those who live in-country can find lists of candidates far more quickly, and explain individual levels of government and electoral processes far better.
Then, electoral boundaries are not always easy to find. We’ve used OpenStreetMap where possible, but that still leaves some gaps, especially at the more granular levels where the data is mainly owned and licensed by the government. It’s been an exercise in finding different sources and putting them all together to create boundary data to the level required.
Indeed, that seems to be a general pattern, also replicated across candidate data: at the national level, it’s easy to find and in the public domain. The deeper you go, the less those two descriptors hold true. It was also at this point that we realised how much, here in the UK, we take for granted things like the fact that the spelling of representatives’ names is usually consistent across a variety of sources — not always a given elsewhere, and currently something that only a human can resolve!
What makes all the challenges more worthwhile, though, is that we know it’s not just a one-off push that only benefits a single project. Nor is the data going straight into Facebook, never to be seen again.
Much of what we’re collecting, from consistent name data to deep-level boundaries data, is to be made available to all under open use licenses. For example, where possible we can submit the boundaries back to OpenStreetMap, helping to improve it at a local granular level across whole countries.
The politician data, meanwhile, will go into Wikidata and EveryPolitician so that anyone can use it for their own apps, websites, or research.
There are also important considerations about how this type of data will be used and where and when it is released in the electoral process; finding commercial models for our Democracy work is arguably a more delicate exercise than on some of our other projects. But hopefully it’s now clear exactly how a project like this can both sustain us as a charity, and have wider benefits for everyone — the holy grail for an organisation like us.
At the moment it’s unclear how many such opportunities exist or if this is a one-off. We’re certainly looking for more avenues to extend the scope of this work and keen to hear more ideas on this approach.
Your contributions help us keep projects like EveryPolitician up and running, for the benefit of all.Donate now
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.