1. By-Election Briefing: Understanding boundary changes with the Local Intelligence Hub

    Last Thursday saw two by-elections and two new MPs elected. When the Kingswood and Wellingborough voters go to the polls for the upcoming general election, many will be voting for candidates in brand new constituencies, and won’t have the MP they’ve just elected on their ballot paper. What can the Local Intelligence Hub tell us about how these constituencies will change?

    The times boundaries, they are a’changing

    Both of the constituencies that went to the polls on Thursday are being divided up to form multiple new constituencies at the next general election. The total number of constituencies and MPs (650) isn’t changing, but the boundaries are moving, and there are lots of new (and long) constituency names. In the case of Kingswood, no constituency of that name will exist anymore, instead being replaced by four brand new constituencies. Wellingborough, meanwhile, will be divided into three new constituencies. Let’s dive into the detail 👇

    So, who goes where?

    At the top of our new constituency pages, you’ll find the candidates that have been announced for that seat, thanks to our friends at The Democracy Club. This isn’t an official data set, it’s crowdsourced by Democracy Club and their wonderful volunteers.

    We can see that Kingswood’s new MP, Damian Egan, is standing as the candidate in the new Bristol North East constituency. We also know that just 36% of the constituency’s current population will have the opportunity to vote for him next time round. Here’s how Kingswood will change:

    • Bristol North East will cover approximately 36% of this constituency’s population, and 15% of this constituency’s area. 
    • Filton and Bradley Stoke will cover approximately 18% of this constituency’s population, and 10% of this constituency’s area.
    • North East Somerset and Hanham will cover approximately 45% of this constituency’s population, and 60% of this constituency’s area.
    • Thornbury and Yate will cover approximately 1% of this constituency’s population, and 14% of this constituency’s area.

    What about Wellingborough? We don’t have as much candidate information, but we do know that Wellingborough will become:

    • Daventry, which will cover approximately 4% of this constituency’s population, and 24% of this constituency’s area.
    • South Northamptonshire, which will cover approximately 5% of this constituency’s population, and 24% of this constituency’s area.
    • Wellingborough and Rushden, which will cover approximately 90% of this constituency’s population, and 51% of this constituency’s area.

    What does that mean for our data?

    As we explain here, it depends on how the data comes to us in the first place.

    Over time, statistics agencies will release more information for future constituencies, which we will be able to import straight into the Local Intelligence Hub. But during the changeover we want to keep as much of the value of datasets for the outgoing constituencies as possible.

    What can we say about how these constituencies will change?

    For datasets where we have the original data at a very granular level (eg: LSOA or point-based data), we’ve started creating new datasets using future constituencies. We’ve already done that for the Index of Multiple Deprivation dataset, and we’ll let you know as we make more progress on this. 

    Where we only have data at the level of current constituencies, we’ve created a process to approximately convert information from current to future constituencies. The big assumption of this method is that, for either people or area, the thing being measured is evenly distributed across that metric. As such, we think it’s fair to say that while the data is fuzzy in comparison between neighbours, overall it will capture trends across wider areas or regions.

    You can also dig into the new constituencies data yourself.

    Thoughts?

    The Local Intelligence Hub is brand new, and we’re still working out how to make it as useful as possible – for old constituencies, and new ones. Please try the hub out for yourself, and let us know how you get on!

    Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

    P.S. We’ve also published this on our LinkedIn page – why not connect with us there?

  2. The Local Intelligence Hub: our latest launch helps you put climate on the agenda

    A general election is not far away, so get ready for heated conversations: on your doorstep, on social media and in the news.

    If you care about climate, we want you to be able to take part in those conversations with the facts at your fingertips. That’s why this week, we’re launching the Local Intelligence Hub, a powerful tool that provides a wealth of relevant national and local data in one place — and encourages you to combine it in a multitude of ways, to uncover useful new insights.

    mySociety worked in collaboration with The Climate Coalition, supported by Green Alliance to develop this site. The aim is to help you — whether you’re a citizen, climate campaigner or part of an organisation — to understand and share the places where there is a strong mandate for environmental action, ensuring commitments to climate and nature are put firmly onto party manifestos. We’ve demoed it in front of organisations who’ve told us it’s a total gamechanger!

    But enough words — let’s get straight to the action. Watch these short videos and you’ll immediately grasp the power of the Local Intelligence Hub.

    For individuals

    “I’m just one person: what difference can I make?” Well, with the Local Intelligence Hub’s data, you can make a lot of difference.

    As a first step, put your postcode into the Local Intelligence Hub and find out all about your local area.

    You might find some interesting data combinations: for example, what does public support for climate action look like in comparison to data on air pollution in your constituency? How about the measures of poverty against support for cheaper renewable energy?

    We hope you’ll use this kind of intel to inform conversations with canvassers or your MP. If you discover something notable, why not write to the newspaper — local or national — or share your findings with your community newsletter, Facebook group etc?

    In the run-up to an election public opinion has a lot of power, and all the more so when you can quote the data to prove it.

    Screenshot of the map page from Local Intelligence Hub

    For campaigning

    If you are part of a climate campaign that works nationally, the Local Intelligence Hub shows you at a glance where in the country to concentrate your activity for the most impact.

    Play about with the map page, selecting different datasets, and you’ll soon understand the insights they unlock. Every constituency with high support for renewable energy for example; or the constituencies where the MPs have the lowest majorities; or where the population is youngest… the possibilities are practically endless.

    If you’re more locally-based, dive into the constituency pages where a massive range of local data allows you to have a full picture of the area:

    • Public opinion: How much support is there for climate initiatives such as net zero or renewable energy?
    • Place: What factors affect people in the area, such as air pollution, flooding and levels of deprivation?
    • Movement: Which climate and environmental groups are active in the area, and what other relevant organisations have a presence?

    For each constituency, these three data collections are supplemented by information on the MP’s memberships, voting and activities. Note that you have the choice to see constituencies as they are now, or as they will be after the election when new boundaries come into play.

    Once you’ve dipped into the data, you should be able to shape your campaigns to more effectively speak to the right people about the issues that matter to them.

    We hope you find the Local Intelligence Hub useful. When you’ve had a chance to try it out, please do let us know how you’re using it!

  3. Democracy month notes – January

    What are month notes?

    They are notes on what we’ve been working on… each month. It’s like weeknotes for lazy people. 

    We’ve been writing them for our Climate programme, and we’re building up to the point where we’ve got enough going on in our Democracy work that it’s worth establishing the habit of being clear about what’s going on.

    It’s about being open with what we’re working on, and if we’re lucky that helps spark conversations that help move things along. 

    What is “democracy” at mySociety?

    “We should do some Democracy monthnotes” is a sentence that makes perfect sense internally, but for some quick scene setting…

    In principle, everything we do is in some way about democracy —  we consider our FOI and transparency work to be important in part because it enables and grows civic ideas of democracy. Key to our climate work is the idea that democratic and climate problems are linked, and so our climate work is very engaged with the kinds of problems of democracy we’ve been thinking about all along — but with a sharper focus.

    Internally, we tend to think about our democracy work as being around TheyWorkForYou  and WriteToThem, and internationally looking at similar “parliamentary monitoring organisations”. These are some of our longest running services, widely used, and with a long potential future ahead of them. One of the things we’ve been doing over the last year is creating a clearer idea of what we want to accomplish with PMO work. Lots of this work has been behind the scenes in funding bids – but can be seen in the work adding the Senedd as a general direction of travel. More on what we’re currently working on (and some things that didn’t work out) in future. 

    Behind the scenes, there isn’t a Democracy “team” as such because we don’t currently have the funding available for that. My estimate is that last year we probably had 1-1.5 full time equivalent (FTE) people working on Democracy – but that was spread over 5-6 actual people. Given the porous lines between the different things we do, the immediate goal isn’t to get a big team, but to be increasing the consistency with which we can use the wide range of skills already in the organisation — and in making links and making the most of opportunities across our wider work. 

    So “Democracy” at mySociety is always going to be a little fluid —  we’ll use these monthnotes to be clearer about what that means in practice. 

    All the conferences

    The Democracy Network held its second conference this January, attended by 10% of mySociety (three people). 

    This is an interesting crowd that is, for obvious reasons, moving into being quite election focused. By contrast, a lot of mySociety’s work is about an effective civic democracy between elections. Many WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou features become less useful in an election, while traffic increases and usage changes. Once Parliament dissolves ,there are no MPs until new ones are elected, but what those MPs have been up to is important. We’re doing some thinking on our options for running the most useful version of the site during an election, and have picked up some conversations at the conference to continue. 

    Julia also went to the Democracy Classroom strategy day, where she spoke on a panel about using data in campaigning alongside our friends at Generation Rent and the Democracy Club. Our hosts, the Politics Project, brought together organisations of all sizes and types, from all across the UK. It was great to have a really practical conversation about the data needs of organisations working with young people, and after a follow up chat with Gaibhin from United Response, we’re already working on adding census disability data to the Local Intelligence Hub service we’re launching soon. 

    We’ve also had the mySociety quarterly team meeting, where we all head somewhere in the country (this time, Leeds!) to talk for a few days with colleagues we generally only see on the internet. They’re nice! 

    Register of interests

    Great to put out our spreadsheet version of the register of members interests

    Fun fact: this has been mostly ready to go since October —  part of not having a lot of funded time for Democracy work means there’s a backlog of 99% finished work to get out the door. 

    But the response to the blog post shows the value in getting that out, and in being transparent in general. Lots of nice comments from people who think they’ll find it useful – but it’s also leading to more conversations with people with an interest in the register that can help us get a better sense of what’s currently happening where, and what our role in the picture might be. 

    For keeping track: On my bit at the end about the kinds of questions people might want answered, Stuart from Open Innovations has linked me to some of their old weeknotes on work they did with PDS and the HoC Library on the kind of questions that can be answered through the current data.

    Voting records

    One of the big things we were doing behind the scenes last year is reviewing and updating our approach to voting records. This is one of TheyWorkForYou’s most notable features, and we got a grant from Newby Trust to have a good look at these and used some of our grant from the Porticus Foundation to do some more involved technical work than we may have otherwise been able to manage. January has been the fiddly final stages of getting this to launch. 

    I’m not going to go into a lot of details here (there are long blog posts to come) – but the big task has been thinking through what we’re trying to achieve, and then untangling our technical systems to make that sustainable over the long run. 

    Our current system is based on various data flows in and out of the Public Whip – which has a complicated history with TheyWorkForYou. It has some overlap with the people who founded it, it’s not run by us, but at the moment is substantially kept updated by Matthew’s work unclogging the ParlParse system the two sites have in common. Some of the things we want to change would need changes deep in the Public Whip, which we can’t do, and that’s bad for what’s such an important feature of the site. 

    As such, we’ve made a transitional replacement for the Public Whip, where we can build in the kind of analysis tools we need to have more visibility and control of the whole process.Over this year we’re going to be talking to people who want more of the kind of number-y analysis the Public Whip does well to tidy up what we’re using internally — and set it up as a useful specialist complement to TheyWorkForYou. 

    TICTeC/PMO Communities of Practice

    TICTeC is back in London! See the call for proposals about the conference itself – where we’re especially trying to think about how/if/where civic tech is relevant to themes of democracy in crisis, and democratic approaches to the climate crisis.

    As part of this funding, we are also setting up communities of practice around access to information and parliamentary monitoring organisations. A big bit of January for me has been (working with the Civic Tech Field Guide) making a good list of PMO organisations from around the world to approach to get a sense of what problems we might discuss over the next year. I’m currently working through the survey responses to that. 

    New combined authority

    Welcome to the new “York and North Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority”  — added to our big list of local authorities, our IMD dataset, and nearest neighbour dataset – and to CAPE – our local climate action tracker – where you can see some of these datasets in practice.

    CAPE has some features helping navigate the connections between authorities and combined authorities, and in general we’re trying to think about how we can better reflect Combined Authorities in our core work. 

    A key use of WriteToThem is a “here is the structure of government where you are” — and we haven’t added the new CAs because unlike the London Assembly they don’t have as clear a public facing representative. The long term solution here is either to lean into WriteToThem having information for people you don’t necessarily “write to” or building a clearer page for this into TheyWorkForYou – which does some version of this for devolved Parliaments/Assemblies. We’re thinking about it. 

    Making progress

    In any given month, we’re generally making incremental progress on things we think are good ideas, that might also importantly be fundable ideas on where we’re well placed to make something better

    Julia’s been developing more about what our approach to training might be — making more of the fact our tools are already used by educators, and building a better loop between that and our service development. 

    I’ve been developing our thoughts on the register of interests further, and reading through the Jo Cox Foundation’s new report “No place in politics: tackling abuse and intimidation” (which I thought was measured, and well-thought through) and making some notes on how it applies to our work. 

    We’re also thinking more about how practically we can try and increase support from the public for our services. Here moving a bit away from “Save TheyWorkForYou” language to being clearer about how what we do is part of making things better (regardless of who wins elections), and that we want to be far more ambitious than keeping the lights on.

    Anyway, if you’ve read this far — donations are welcome. But also get in touch if you’ve got something to chat with us about!

  4. TICTeC 2024: Call for proposals and registration now open

    TICTeC, our Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, will be returning for its 7th edition on 12th and 13th June 2024, in London and online. We’re delighted to announce that the call for proposals and registration for TICTeC 2024 are now open.

    TICTeC is all about sharing research, knowledge and experiences to examine and improve the impacts of civic technology, in order to strengthen democracy, public participation, transparency, and accountability across the world.

    Call for Proposals: open until 22nd March 2024

    Core themes

    After twenty years of mySociety, and approaching ten years of TICTeC – we want to think about what is needed now to match the big challenges of the next twenty years. 

    As well as examining the impact that civic technology is having upon societies around the world, the big question we want to answer through TICTeC is:

    What is needed to make civic tech on a global scale more successful and impactful, to tackle global problems around democracy and climate change?

    Through TICTeC 2024 and 2025, and our new Communities of Practice – we are going to break down this question, and work through for ourselves, and with our partners, what is needed to deliver on the radical goals of the civic technology movement. 

    This breaks down into two sub questions that we want to explore. What is the role of civic tech in:

    • safeguarding and advancing democracy/transparency where it is under threat?
    • enabling the effective and democratic change needed to meet the challenge of climate change?

    For this year’s TICTeC we encourage proposals that contribute to discussion around these two thematic questions, as well as to the overarching conference theme. Potential topic areas may include:

    • Access to Information/Freedom of Information
    • Monitoring parliaments/legislatures
    • Climate change/climate action
    • Tools for citizen participation
    • AI and Democracy
    • Civic tech as part of civil society
    • Crowdsourcing and volunteers
    • Impacts of big tech/tech giants
    • Fact checking
    • Technical infrastructure/cybersecurity

    You can propose 20 minute presentations and ideas for longer workshops.

    We encourage presentation submissions to focus on the specific impacts of technologies, rather than showcase new tools that are as yet untested. A tool doesn’t have to have mass usage to be worth talking about – we’re also interested in qualitative stories on the impacts of technology, their impacts on official processes, and how users have used platforms to campaign for change. We’re also interested in stories about obstacles and barriers to having impact. 

    Workshop proposals should be relevant to the conference themes. Technology does not have to be new, and we welcome retrospectives on long running projects. 

    The deadline for applications is the 22nd March 2024. Those selected for inclusion in the conference programme will be notified no later than 5th April 2024.

    Presenters will be required to register for the conference by 19th April in order to confirm their slot (the registration fee will be waived for individuals presenting). 

    Submit your proposals via this application form by 22nd March 2024 at the latest. 

    Register now

    Registration for TICTeC 2024 is now open and is essential in order to attend. TICTeC has sold out in previous years – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on 20th April 2024.

    Attending TICTeC 2024 in-person will allow attendees access to all conference sessions, including main plenary sessions, presentation/Q&A sessions, workshops, networking sessions, lunches and drinks reception. Attending online will allow remote attendees access to all main plenary sessions and some breakout presentation/Q&A sessions.

    The TICTeC 2024 Eventbrite page contains further information about the conference, as well as FAQs, but do let us know if you have any questions by emailing tictec@mysociety.org.


    In the following months, we will be publishing full details of proceedings as they are announced over on the TICTeC website. If you’d like to hear of TICTeC 2024 updates first, please sign up for email updates.

    And in the meantime, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse all the resources from previous TICTeC events over on the TICTeC Knowledge Hub.

    We look forward to welcoming you to TICTeC 2024!

     

  5. Statement from mySociety regarding misuse of FixMyStreet data

    We sometimes see stories in national and regional press that use data from FixMyStreet, our long-running reporting service for local problems, to report on the best or worst places for potholes, fly-tipping and other topical issues.

    When we are asked by journalists and other organisations to provide such data, we always say no, because data from FixMyStreet cannot be used to definitively compare different areas in a fair manner

    However, because FixMyStreet is an open source platform which displays all reports publicly to facilitate an open and community-centric approach to reporting, we don’t always get a say in the matter or have a chance to provide essential caveats about the limitations of the data before it ends up misinterpreted and misused in a story that gets picked up by the press. 

     

    Why FixMyStreet data cannot be used to fairly compare areas

    While FixMyStreet is a national reporting service, the data from it paints only a small part of the picture. 

    1. FixMyStreet is one of many ways in which citizens across the UK can report a problem to their local council. In most cases, FixMyStreet works alongside authorities’ own online reporting services. Reports are also made to authorities via social media, via telephone, via email and even via word of mouth to local councillors. In those areas, FixMyStreet reports do not tell the full story.
    2. Meanwhile, a growing number of councils use the platform as their own integrated service via FixMyStreet Pro, which is run by our wholly owned subsidiary SocietyWorks. As a result, these areas may seem to have more reports about an issue than others, but this doesn’t suggest the problem is more prevalent there; instead, it suggests that more reports are being made via FixMyStreet instead of another service or channel. 
    3. Another thing to note is that a small number of councils refuse to accept reports from residents via third parties like FixMyStreet full stop, so in those areas the data would make it look as though there are no problems there at all.
    4. It is also worth noting that reports on FixMyStreet display a status to say whether the issue is fixed or not. This helps people in a community to understand what is being done, but it relies on users coming back to mark an issue as fixed when it has been. This limits the reliability of data looking at, for example, all open reports within a certain category, because some of those issues may actually have been resolved. Follow-ups sent to report-makers help to mitigate against this, while reports whose statuses haven’t changed for a long time eventually become marked as ‘unknown’. 
    5. Furthermore, categories on FixMyStreet and FixMyStreet Pro are set by each individual council to reflect the issues they can deal with and the terminology used by their internal systems. For that reason there is no such thing as a simple way to compare all potholes, for example, reported in an area, because those reports might also be listed under ‘road defect’ or ‘dip in road’.
    6. Perhaps the most crucial reason comparison is unfair using FixMyStreet data alone is the disparity in where it is used, how it is used and who it is used by across the UK. A joint research article published in the Spring 2023 edition of the Irish Local Authority Times by mySociety and the University of Stirling found that people in areas of middle deprivation report the most problems via FixMyStreet, but that does not mean those areas have the most problems. 

    Another example of this can be found in mySociety research into incidents of deprivation from 2019 which found that reports of dog fouling have a peak in areas of middle deprivation, but this does not reflect the real world incidence of dog fouling, which was found to be most prevalent in the highest areas of deprivation.

    More generally, joint research in 2018 by the University of Stirling, the University of Sheffield and mySociety into the geography of FixMyStreet reports found that there are clear differences between areas in relation to the kinds of things that are reported most frequently, making comparison on a national scale wholly unreliable. 

     

    Final thoughts

    We built FixMyStreet in 2007 to make it easier for people to report problems in their neighbourhood, with a simple reporting process and no need for any prior knowledge of council boundaries or responsibilities. Our intention was, and continues to be, to help citizens engage in their community, to get the right information to the right people – and never to pit authorities or areas against each other, or denounce the worst place for an issue.

    FixMyStreet helps to construct a snapshot of communities. It enables people to see what has been reported and to which authority, while at the same time attempting to reduce the occurrence of report duplication for the responsible authority.

    For all the reasons we’ve given, mySociety and SocietyWorks will not endorse the simplistic use of FixMyStreet data to compare, denounce or rank areas.

    Of course, that is not to say that data from FixMyStreet is not useful to analyse in other contexts, and we are always supportive of research that is carried out with more constructive premises. If you are interested, you can find a wealth of research using FixMyStreet data on the mySociety Research website.

    Councils and other authorities can find out more about FixMyStreet and how it works here: https://www.fixmystreet.com/about/information-for-councils 

  6. Foodbanks and TheyWorkForYou alerts

    Give Food is an independent UK charity, founded in early 2020. They run the only national public database of UK foodbanks, and provide an up-to-date index of what goods each one is asking to be donated. 

    Founder Jason Cartwright spoke to us about how Give Food makes use of TheyWorkForYou’s email alerts — and we were pleased to discover that mySociety has helped shape their offerings in other ways, too. 

    Find a foodbank near you

    The Give Food website performs a number of related functions, as Jason explains: “We help members of the public understand that there are foodbanks around them, then give them tools to donate the items that are needed or to take political action.”

    Put in your postcode and you’ll be shown a list and a map of all the foodbanks near you. If you click on one of them, you’ll see what they need, what they already have plenty of, and where you can drop donations — or in some cases, how you can purchase goods online and have them delivered directly to the foodbank.

    “We aim to help local organisations address the immediate and critical needs created by food insecurity, but the wider ultimate aim is to not exist at all, as we believe that foodbanks should not be required in our country.”

    Turning alert emails into action

    As this suggests, Give Food is not just a middleman between citizens and foodbanks, but also acts as a political campaigning organisation. So where do the TheyWorkForYou alerts come in? 

    “We use them heavily,” says Jason, “basically to inform ourselves of what is being discussed by lawmakers around our cause.

    “We’re only small, but larger charities in our field are experts at engaging the public and politicians to achieve the same aims as us, and regularly directly influence policy. 

    “TheyWorkForYou alerts allow us to see, almost in real time, which of the approaches they are using are cutting through to being discussed in Parliament and national/city assemblies.

    “We use the information about how conversation around our cause is going to influence how we approach our advertising, site usability and copy — all of which allows our users to maximise their political action.

    “For instance, as a simple example, the current cost of living crisis, especially energy bills, is having a profound effect on foodbanks. Seeing this being discussed by politicians we were able to quickly change our advertising keywords and also reflect the current conversation in the form email our users can send to their MP.”

    Open source code

    It’s great to hear of such a direct connection between our output and a charity’s ability to act. And, as it turned out, the alerts aren’t the only benefit that Give Food have gained from mySociety.

    One more useful function of the Give Food website is that you can sign up to receive an email when your local foodbank needs supplies. This isn’t powered by our code, but Jason tells us that it was modelled on TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system. 

    Finally, there’s one more important way in which we’ve influenced Give Food: “Our code and data is all open source, and that decision was 100% influenced by mySociety’s open ethos.

    “Our data is used by governments, councils, universities, supermarkets, political parties, hundreds of national & local news websites, apps, plus other charities including food banks and food bank networks themselves,” says Jason, proving that when data is set free, it can be used in a multitude of different and useful tools.

    If you’re a developer and you think Give Food’s data or code might be useful to you, start on their API page

    Thanks very much to Jason for talking to us: it’s a joy to discover the many and varied ways in which TheyWorkForYou alerts are helping others to make a difference.

    Image: FeydHuxtable (CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  7. Improving the register of MPs interests

    Tl;dr: We’re now releasing our register of interests data as a spreadsheet.

    High quality data about the external interests of our MPs and ministers is vital to identifying conflicts of interests, and discouraging politicians from having conflicts of interest in the first place.

    Lack of clarity on the interests and income streams of MPs is a corruption risk. The problem with second jobs and outside interests is less that MPs might be distracted from their main job – but that when they stand in Parliament, they may be representing groups beyond their constituents, asking questions (or not asking questions) depending on their outside work.

    When outside interests exist, it’s vital they are clear and transparent. The Register of Members Interests contains a list of disclosures MPs are required to make of financial interests or benefits which “others might reasonably consider to influence his or her actions or words as a Member of Parliament”. Following the Owen Patterson scandal, there was renewed interest in this data, as it was clear that there were a number of potential stories and scandals hidden in plain sight – just requiring someone to join up the data.



    Building a data ecosystem

    A key problem is that the data is not easy to work with. The data is released (roughly fortnightly) on the parliament.uk website as a HTML document for each MP. This process technically releases the information, but makes it hard to compare releases of the same MP over time, or to make comparisons between different MPs.

    TheyWorkForYou improves on this by creating structured data from the HTML release. Using this we can highlight the changes in each release from the previous release. This is useful for journalists and campaigners in quickly understanding what has changed in each release. For instance, the change in Rishi Sunak’s register over time can be seen here.

    We want to avoid people doing the same work of cleaning the data over and over. We make our version of the data available publicly, so other people can use our work to do things that we haven’t done ourselves. For instance, Open Innovations have built on top of the data we publish to link the data to other datasets and create a Register of Members’ Financial Interests Explorer.

    While projects like the Tortoise/Sky News Westminster Accounts create new value in joining up datasets and cleaning the data for their own work – ultimately the new datasets they have created are only usable by those organisations. That’s their right as the people doing the work – but we think there is a bigger (and more sustainable) impact to be had in improving the data in public.

    Making our data more accessible

    Previously, we have published our interests data as a series of XML files, which is useful for programmers, but harder for other specialists to work with. We did some thinking with OpenDemocracy last year to explore if there were small changes we could make that would make the work we already do more useful.

    As well as the XML files, we now publish an experimental spreadsheet version of all data since 2000, and the register for the current 2019 Parliament.

    These sheets show the earliest and latest disclosure of an interest, and include some (very) basic NLP analysis to extract mentioned orgs from the free text and make it easier to quickly parse when scrolling.

    This data can also be explored through Datasette, which can be used to query the datasets in the browser, and save the queries as links that can be shared.

    For instance, the following links go to specific queries (we’re using an in-browser version for prototyping and this might take a minute to load):

    We want to continue to improve our approach here – and welcome feedback from anyone this spreadsheet helps.

    Parliament can do better data publication

    A key problem run into by everyone working with the data is that it’s broken to start with. MPs fill things out in inconsistent ways that makes the overall data different to analyse without cleaning first (see both the Open Innovations and Tortoise/Sky News methodology notes). Fixing this up is a key first step towards aggregate analysis – and the easiest place to fix it is with validation when the data is collected at the start.

    While work can be done to improve the data after the fact (and experiments with Generative AI have found it to be quite good at fixing inconsistent formatting), improving the initial data collection is the most effective way of improving the quality of the data. There are active moves in Parliament to fix some of these problems. Producing more information in machine readable formats, and adding methods to make sure the data is correct to start with, will make the transparency process simpler at every stage.

    Similar issues apply to the register published for All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which should publish as “machine readable” data the range of data that the groups are formally supposed to make publicly available. APPGs are semi-official groups that MPs can form around specific interests or issues. Many of these are useful ways of having discussions, but these can also be an avenue for corruption, with outside interests supporting the group and its activities. The register includes the officers of groups and financial assistance and gifts received by the group – but not the overall membership. APPGs are separately required to disclose their wider membership on their website (or if they don’t have a website, if someone asks) but this isn’t included in the register, and so can’t be consistently scraped to produce data. While MPs are supposed to disclose benefits from groups on their individual disclosure, clearer data on what is officially “public” memberships would help ensure that there is nothing missed between these two datasets.

    Separately there is a register of ministerial interests that applies to MPs who also have government positions. This is in principle more strict, requiring disclosures of relevant interests of family members, and avoiding even perceived conflicts of interest. However, in practice the information does not contain the specific financial value of gifts or benefits, just that they exist. The disclosure cycle is also longer, being published every six months rather than monthly. In practice – this means that relevant interests may not be public for a significant time after a minister is appointed (and potentially never published, if the minister has again moved on by then).

    There is a lot of work that can be done from the outside to build on official data. But the more Parliament does things that it is uniquely able to do, the more we can focus on analysis and data comparisons that are best done outside.

    What mySociety can do

    A very basic thing we can do is beat the drum (and work with those who have been doing this for ages) for better publication of data from Parliament.

    But if this happens or not, we can do work to make the data better. If it looks like Parliament’s data is unlikely to be fixed at the source, then a project of improving the data in public in a way that multiple projects could then build on would be useful. But if the data gets better, then we can better spend our time doing more work on top of this data. This might include joining up the official data with other datasets (including those of the UK’s other Parliaments and Assemblies) to draw out connections and better analysis.

    But our work here isn’t just about producing good data – it’s about displaying it in a way that’s useful and understandable by people. Chris Bryant MP (former Chair of the Standards Committee) has argued that Parliament’s own display of the history of registers should match what’s provided by TheyWorkForYou. If Parliament improved its own display to the public of registers of members’ interests this would be fantastic news – and we in turn would need to think about if there are new approaches that would be useful on top of that.

    One approach we are thinking about would be to find out what people wanted to know the answers to about their MPs interests, and then using volunteers to answer a set of common questions. This is the kind of editorialising that Parliament itself would find much harder to do – while providing something different from aggregate analysis of the data all together. This is something we could do with the data as it exists, but is something where better data would let us create new tools so volunteers could answer more complicated questions.

    Making MPs’ interests clearer and easier to understand is key to spotting conflicts of interest and keeping politicians accountable. We hope our new spreadsheet version of the data helps make the work we’re already doing more useful and accessible – while we think about the road we want to take in future to improve TheyWorkForYou and the project of a transparent democracy.





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    Image: Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash.

  8. Climate monthnotes: January 2024 and a look back over 2023

    January 2024

    It’s full steam ahead in the mySociety Climate team for January 2024, with two chunky pieces of work occupying much of the team’s attention:

    First, our preparations for a public launch of the Local Intelligence Hub we’ve been building with The Climate Coalition. The Hub brings together data from public sources like government, Parliament, and the ONS, as well as—most excitingly—datasets on climate movement presence and activity from members of The Climate Coalition, to help Coalition members (and soon, members of the public) plan and coordinate action at a parliamentary constituency level. Having soft launched to Climate Coalition members in April last year, we’ll soon be opening up most of the data on the Hub to public access, and we’re looking forward to sharing some examples of how organisations are using it in due course.

    Secondly, Siôn, Alice and I have been putting lots of effort into shaping the next few years’ work on community-led home energy actions via our Neighbourhood Warmth platform. We’re really excited about the prospect of testing Neighbourhood Warmth with retrofit organisations and community groups in 2024, to see how a digital service might be able to facilitate and encourage neighbours and communities to explore home energy actions like retrofit and energy flexibility, together. You can read more about our plans in Siôn’s series of monthnotes from 2023.

    A look back over 2023

    Before I sign off for the month, I wanted to also take a moment to recognise the amazing work my colleagues have done in mySociety’s Climate programme over 2023. Here are a few of the highlights I’m particularly proud of:

    In April 2023, we first soft-launched the Local Intelligence Hub to Climate Coalition members. The feedback was massively encouraging, with users from organisations like Green Alliance and The Wildlife Trusts already excited about how the service could help them plan engagement and advocacy activities in 2024 and beyond. As mentioned above, we’ve since spent much of this year adding more datasets, support for the upcoming 2024/2025 constituencies, and free public access, which will be launching in a few weeks.

    In July, Alex and Julia published our Unlocking Fragmented Data report, in partnership with the Centre for Public Data. While the report isn’t specific to climate data, we used our experience of trying to collect data on local climate action as a case study into how poor interoperability and poor transparency of public data can turn into a major blocker to public action. A few months later, we were encouraged to see many of our Fragmented Data recommendations adopted into Chris Skidmore’s ‘The Future Is Local’ report.

    In September, in part as a recognition of mySociety’s work campaigning for more transparent and democratic climate action, we were accepted into the Blueprint Coalition – an influential group of local government organisations, environmental groups, and research institutions working to join up local climate action in the UK. A few months later, in November, we ran a joint event with Blueprint, exploring how the public sector can make local climate data more useful for everyone.

    October saw the launch of the Council Climate Action Scorecards, in partnership with our long-time collaborators, Climate Emergency UK. This year’s Scorecards represented a step change in complexity over the 2021 Plan Scorecards, and saw us develop “GRACE”, an online system for crowdsourcing data on councils’ climate actions, as well as joining CE UK’s advisory board to shape the methodology for the year, and supporting CE UK volunteers in using WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to gather extra data from every local authority via FOI requests. The Action Scorecards were featured in over 150 national and local news stories around the launch, including an exclusive on the EPC ratings of council-owned social housing, in the Financial Times.

    In early November, we attended Business Green’s Net Zero Festival. Louise delivered a barnstorming talk about how mySociety’s services (including CAPE, Scorecards, WhatDoTheyKnow, and WriteToThem) support public action on Net Zero, and I attended a number of interesting sessions, which I blogged about here.

    A few weeks later, in mid-November, we were back in London for mySociety’s 20th Anniversary awards. Food campaigning group Sustain won our award for best use of mySociety services to accelerate climate action, in recognition of how they’d used CAPE to track local authority action on food emissions. If you couldn’t make it to the anniversary awards, I highly recommend you read Louise’s opening speech about mySociety and the history and future of digital democracy in the UK. I’m not crying, it’s just raining above my desk.

    And finally, in December, Alex blogged a round-up of a number of improvements we’d made to CAPE over the year, including a massive upgrade to the discoverability and searchability of plans in the database, using AI / machine learning. The future is here, and turns out it eats climate PDFs for breakfast.

    Thanks to everyone who’s followed along with our progress over 2023! If you’d like to be kept informed about all these projects, and more, sign up to our climate updates newsletter.

    Image: ANIRUDH

  9. Event recap: How can we make local climate data more useful for everyone?

    At the end of November, we were delighted to be joined by over 80 people at our webinar about making local climate data more useful. The recording is now available on YouTube, but we also wanted to capture the key messages from our speakers.

    Anna Powell-Smith, from the Centre for Public Data, highlighted the key recommendations from the Unlocking Fragmented Data report, published jointly with mySociety earlier this year. These are:

    1. A collaborative (but required) data standard to agree the data and format that is expected. 
    2. An online central repository of the location of the published data, so that data users can find it easily.
    3. Support from the data convener to make publication simple and effective.

    Alex Parsons, mySociety’s Senior Researcher, gave the example of trying to build a comprehensive database of council home EPC standards. This data is already published by all local authorities, but because it is published in a variety of formats and locations, it can’t be easily joined up. This data was compiled by volunteers through FOI requests (in order to get standard formats) for the 2023 Council Climate Action Scorecards, and the results were covered in the Financial Times. It was not ‘new’ data, it was just the first time it had been collated and compared.

    Eoin Devane from the Climate Change Committee stressed that data is essential for their work, and that their recent reports highlight the many data gaps that still exist in assessing the UK’s progress towards our 2050 net zero target. Contextualising the need for this data, Eoin also pointed to the CCC’s calls for more clarity on the role of local government, and on bodies like the Local Net Zero Forum.

    Julia Cushion. This then led onto my section, highlighting the types of climate data we need, which we have covered in a previous blog post. I also spoke about the supporting factors for these:

    • Echoing Eoin, more clarity from on the powers of local government for net zero delivery. This is also a key ask of the Blueprint Coalition
    • More transparency around the Local Net Zero Forum and how this acts as a connection between national and local government 
    • Greater coherence around the role of Oflog, especially how they prioritise their metrics
    • More involvement from the Central Digital and Data Office, who could play an important convening role 

    Next, we had our first councillor – Joe Porter, District Councillor for Brown Edge and Endon – who emphasised the importance of local councils as key players in climate action. Reflecting on Staffordshire Moorlands’ efforts, he discussed their annual Climate Change Report, emphasising the significance of monitoring progress, engaging with communities, and setting ambitious targets for carbon neutrality and nature restoration.

    Minesh Parekh, a Labour and Cooperative councillor from Sheffield, echoed the sentiments on the imperative need for councils to lead in addressing the climate crisis. He emphasised the criticality of data in guiding decision-making at the local level. Minesh pointed out the disparity in information available to local councils compared to Members of Parliament, stressing the need for more localised data and resources to support informed decision-making on climate initiatives.

    We rounded off the hour with a quick Q&A, which brought out the importance of sharing best practices, expertise, and data among councils through platforms like the Environmental Data Network. The councillors highlighted the significance of collaboration and the exchange of information to address challenges, bridge data gaps, and achieve more substantial climate action goals.

    Thanks to those who joined us, and we hope to see you at a future event soon. To stay updated on our climate programme, you can sign up to our newsletter.

    Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

  10. Save the date: Our TICTeC conference is back! Join us in London for TICTeC 2024

    We’re very excited to announce that for the first time since 2019, we’ll be hosting an in-person (with virtual attendance options) TICTeC in June 2024.  TICTeC is our Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, which we’ve held in many locations across the world since 2015. This time we’ll be hosting it in London on 12th and 13th June 2024.

    Put that in your diaries now: we’d love for you to join us.

    We’ll be sharing how you can register for TICTeC 2024 and our Call for Proposals in January, so if you’d like to be informed first then do sign up for updates

    What is TICTeC and why do we host it?

    TICTeC stands for the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, and started back in 2015 as an annual conference, but is now also a programme of year-round activities through our TICTeC Communities and TICTeC Labs projects.  

    TICTeC is all about sharing research, knowledge and experiences to examine and improve the impacts of civic technology, in order to strengthen democracy, public participation, transparency, and accountability across the world.

    The TICTeC conference brings together those from across the world who build, research, use and fund civic technology to talk openly and honestly about its impacts and how to improve them. At previous TICTeC conferences, between 150-250 people have gathered from more than 35 countries. 

    After twenty years of mySociety, and with TICTeC’s 10th anniversary coming up in 2025 – we want to reflect on the civic tech movement and what’s been learned. Does the idea of civic tech still make sense? How does it need to change to meet the democracy and climate challenges of the next few decades? We want TICTeC to be a place attendees can have detailed and meaningful conversations about its past, and where we want to go from here. 

    Why London?

    It’s always tricky to choose a location for TICTeC. Here’s why we’ve chosen London this time: 

    • mySociety is a charity and TICTeC is run solely by our staff members, who are all based in the UK. We want to spend our conference budget on helping others attend rather than on our own travel to the conference location, so hosting on home turf will allow us to do this. 
    • As TICTeC brings together people from 35+ countries worldwide, London is an incredible international hub and accessible by all modes of public transport. Attendees being able to travel sustainably to TICTeC is really important to us, and of course the environment. Those from Europe can use the Eurostar to arrive sustainably by train to London St Pancras, which is a mere 15 minute walk away from our venue; those who can’t travel by train can arrive into one of London’s 6 major airports; and London is the most well connected city by public transport to other UK places for our UK attendees.
    • Through our connections with the London & Partners agency and domestic authorities, and being a UK based organisation ourselves, we are hoping to be able to provide more robust visa support to TICTeC delegates, improving on previous TICTeC conferences. 

    Stay tuned

    As mentioned above, we will shortly share more information on TICTeC 2024’s themes, our open Call for Proposals and how to register, but in the meantime, please do save the date and get in touch if you have any questions!

    Image: Vladislav Zolotov