1. Democratic Commons: working with Facebook

    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.

    Interesting challenges

    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!

    Giving back

    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.


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    Photo: Justin Tietsworth, Unsplash

  2. TheyWorkForYou strives to be unbiased, reliable and truthful. Here’s how.

    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.


    Donate now

    Image: Gordon Williams (Unsplash)

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  3. Product of my environment

    So as announced elsewhere on the mySociety blog I am going to have a bit of a different role from now on. It has happened pretty quickly – following a conversation with Mark our Chief Exec during a (not very) West Wing-esque walk and talk through St James Park where I suggested that I might have some capacity to do more and maybe I wasn’t really doing enough of the things that got me hired.

    A couple of things have been brewing that meant this was a timely discussion. The ‘Democratic Commons’ work is something that immediately struck a chord with me – we talk about it as being;

    “A concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.”

    More than that though it is basically the democratic data infrastructure that Governments should provide but so often don’t and making it as widely and openly available as possible. Practically that has meant us building a relationship with Wikidata to have a truly international, sustainable and trusted platform for the data and also nurture commercial relationships with internet giants like Facebook to provide both huge reach for the data but also a funding stream that underpins the work for the commons.

    There is a careful balance to be struck for sure but the work is too important not to try.

    Also there is some work emerging from our Better Cities practice and discussions with partner organisations that is looking at broadening the reach of our services, and of civic tech tools in general, that I am really passionate about making happen. It is all quite early but you can expect some blogposts about this as well in the near future – thinking in the open – it is what we do!

    These are both exciting opportunities and exactly the sort of thing I joined mySociety to work on and so I was keen to find a way to really contribute to both.

    This post from a couple of years ago by Matt Walton at Futurelearn has been a bit of a touchstone for me about how I approach my work since I stumbled upon it. Mainly as it is always reassuring to read something by someone else that articulates much of what you are already doing but also the clarity of that articulation also highlights where the gaps are in your own approach.

    So (other) Matt identifies six priorities for a Head of Product;

    – Storytelling and inspiring
    – Providing purpose and direction
    – Exploring and reporting
    – Listening and explaining
    – Supporting and empowering
    – Coordinating and collaborating

    To one extent or another these six pretty much reflect what Mark has asked me to do (which is helpful!).

    Storytelling and inspiring
    Inspiring sounds a bit too ‘Californian’ but there is no doubt that ‘storytelling’ is a big part of the reason I got this job. Because…let us be honest…I have a reputation as a publicity hound 🙂 I have a  profile built by blogging, speaking, tweeting, arranging meet-ups and my commitment to working in the open that provides a platform to get our messages heard but I haven’t been doing enough of that. I need to do better and I think the ‘Democratic Commons’ and also the emerging ‘local’ work provide some really interesting opportunities to get out there and stir up some interest.

    Providing purpose and direction
    I don’t actually think these kind of roles ‘provide’ purpose or direction – but there is a responsibility to make sure that people understand both and are making decisions aligned with them. mySociety are a small, nimble organisation – not some huge public institution but ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal, which they understand and support is important for any successful team. This isn’t about being heavy handed and again really comes down to communication – the more internally focused side of things.

    Exploring and reporting
    In our context this is a bit different to what (other) Matt initially had in mind I think but it works anyway. There is part of this role that is concerned with being on the lookout for opportunities – whether they be partnerships, grants, commercial leads or new challenges in our space and making sure the right people are made aware and the right actions are taken.

    Listening and explaining
    Part of this is just about being an empathic member of the team, making sure every voice is heard and that everyone understands why decisions have been taken and what the goals are. This is something that is easier in co-located teams – when you are sitting with everyone you can pick up on moods and frustrations much faster than via Slack or even Hangouts and you can preempt many situations. Working remotely provides a challenge for this sort of thing but it is an interesting one.

    There is another part of this though – listening to our users. Doing more user research and really using our analytics to make product decisions. I’m keen to make this sort of thinking much more of an integral part of any new initiative from the start.

    Supporting and empowering
    This is very much related to the first point above. It is about making sure team members are empowered (and provided sufficient cover) to make decisions to get things done without the need to second guess themselves. This is pretty second nature here at mySociety – having a small team of so many talented people makes it an obvious way to work. Still everyone needs reassurance sometimes!

    Coordinating and collaborating
    For us this isn’t about trying to coordinate across multiple product teams – we aren’t Spotify – but there is clearly a job to be done to coordinate our collaborations with partners, funders and clients on all manner of projects. Providing them with a clarity as to what we are providing for them but also what we need from them.

    So that’s the sort of things I’m thinking about…what this looks like in more detail will emerge in the days and weeks to come I’m sure. You can expect to get royally fed up with my blogposts and hopefully get bored of me talking about our work at meet-ups and conferences (organisers if anything sounds interesting for your event give me a shout!).

     

    Image: Suyash Dwivedi (BY-SA)

  4. A Shuffle and Some Hustle

    In my last post I introduced the concept of the Democratic Commons:

    “A concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.”

    Over the next few weeks we’re going to elaborate more on what we mean by this, what we’re doing to help contribute and make more connections to help others contribute.

    I’ve asked our own Matt Jukes to take on a new role as Head of Product with a remit to better articulate our vision both internally and externally about why we do what we do and why it’s important. As you might know Jukesie’s not afraid of sharing what he’s up to and he’s already been giving some insights into how we’ve been developing our Better Cities practice.

    He’ll be taking this a stage further by talking about the ‘Democratic Commons’, why it is important and mySociety’s role in making it a reality. Except to hear a LOT more from Jukesie on this and our other product stories over the coming months.

    We’re able to dedicate more time to this because we’ve also just hired our new Sales Director, David Eaton, who joins us from a ten year stint supporting Local Government at Public-I.

    David is a really important hire for us in our Better Cities team at a perfect time. He’ll be leading the charge as we roll out FixMyStreet Pro to more councils around the UK – if you haven’t already you can try out a live demo of the service.

    He’ll be joining in early October and if you’d like to find out more about FMS Pro before then please do get in touch.

    Finally as we’re on a bit of a team update we made one really important promotion over the summer that we haven’t yet shouted about enough.

    We’ve promoted Louise Crow to the role of Head of Development and she’s been busy with refining the day to day management of our development team and she’ll be ensuring we’ve got good plans in place for each person’s career development.

    Louise has been an essential member of mySociety since joining back in 2009 and has been an invaluable support and mentor for me personally since I joined a couple of years ago.

    Just as importantly Louise is also looking to ensure we’re properly connected into wider external developer networks and connecting to other friendly civic organisations who share our mission or might benefit from some support.

    So congrats to Louise and Jukesie and looking forward to getting David in post in a few weeks.

    Image: Sam Bloom (Unsplash)

  5. NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve just listed Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on our UK Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com. These new bodies bring together NHS organisations and local councils with the aim of better co-ordinating health and care services in England (see NHS England’s webpage introducing them).

    In most parts of the country Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships are unimaginatively named. In a few places though the bodies have been more adventurous: we have the bold and strident sounding Success Regime Essex, as well as Together We’re Better in Staffordshire, Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway, Joined Up Care Derbyshire and one called BOB.

    Some of these bodies appear to be just coming into being, with almost nothing about them online at all and others are more established with staff, websites, boards and published meeting minutes. When researching these organisations we found a handful offered Freedom of Information contact addresses, and commendably Kent and Medway’s even has a log of responses it has already made to FOI requests.

    Most Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships will be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) law as all their members are public bodies. Some may not be subject to FOI though, for example Surrey Heartlands Sustainability and Transformation Partnership appears to have private company Virgin Care as a member, exempting it from the relevant definition; we list the body on WhatDoTheyKnow anyway as part of our activism seeking to expand the scope of the law.

    What information will a Sustainability and Transformation Partnership hold?

    A few partnerships publish their key governance documents (constitutions, terms of reference, memoranda of understanding), and minutes and papers from their boards; these can give an insight into the organisation’s activities and reading them may suggest information which could be made public via a Freedom of Information request. If the basics of board minutes, and governance documents aren’t published you can use WhatDoTheyKnow to get them online and easily for everyone to access.

    FOI responses from Kent and Medway show large sums of money being paid to “consultants/external advisory firms” to develop a Sustainability and Transformation Plan and hint at bodies elsewhere doing similar. Freedom of Information requests could be made to partnerships elsewhere to ask for information on their budgets and spending.

    The future

    It is anticipated that Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships may “evolve” into “Accountable Care Organisations” ACOs, responsible for all public healthcare in a region; this would make them immensely important public bodies.

    We’ll keep an eye on the organisational changes and try to keep our service up-to-date.
    Maintaining the database of public bodies is a key part of running WhatDoTheyKnow; we have to react to reorganisations in the public sector, and bodies forming, merging, changing their names or ceasing to exist.

    NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow

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    Image: LydiaShiningBrightly (CC-by/2.0)

  6. Contributing to the Democratic Commons

    mySociety was built on its Democracy practice, a pioneer in providing simple- to-use tools that demystify the democratic process, allow citizens to understand how decisions are being made on their behalf and ensure that their voices are heard by elected representatives.

    We’ve been on a long journey, from the early days of FaxYourMP which eventually became WriteToThem, to our pivotal TheyWorkForYou service which has both stretched the ambitions of Parliament in the UK and led us to develop similar services in Kenya, South Africa and beyond.

    Amidst all of this has been our ongoing push to better standardise and make accessible more Open Data on politicians around the world; initially through our Poplus and Pombola projects, but more recently – and with more success – through our EveryPolitician service which has blossomed into a remarkable dataset of almost 4 million datapoints on over 72,000 politicians in 233 countries and territories.

    Despite these successes I don’t think we’ve yet sufficiently cracked the challenge at scale of enabling more organisations to monitor and report upon the work of more politicians in more countries. We need to do something about that.

    One of the principles that has always underpinned mySociety is that we carry our work out in the open, freely available for others to use. But, as is common with many Open Source projects, we do most of the development work ourselves internally. While community contributions are very welcome, practicality has dictated that more often than not, these are more commonly directed to raising tickets rather than making changes to the actual code.

    Unchecked, this situation could lead to us being too internally focused; on developing everything ourselves rather than recognising where we can achieve our objectives by supporting other projects.

    Fortunately our collaboration with Wikidata, announced earlier this year, suggests what promises to be a clear way forward to scaling up the impact of our work: we recognised that EveryPolitician could only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort if we want our data to be used more widely.

    By contributing to what we’ll call the Democratic Commons  — a concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.

    This was notably put into practice for the snap General Election in the UK in June, where rather than build something new ourselves we directly supported the work of Democracy Club in their efforts to source candidate data and ensured that our existing services like MapIt, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow were easily accessible for other campaigning and democracy organisations to put into use.

    More recently we’ve established a commercial partnership with Facebook to provide them with accurate and independent lists of candidates and elected representatives matched to their relevant Facebook profile pages for the UK, French and Kenyan elections.

    There’s a wider benefit to this kind of commercial work, beyond its being a useful source of additional revenue for mySociety. More importantly, it will allow us to feed the data that we source back into the Democratic Commons. It can contribute to EveryPolitician and Wikidata, and even improve boundary data internationally through OpenStreetMap, which in turn powers our own Global MapIt service.

    Why is this important now?

    Well, it’s not just the rather obvious observation that working with other people is a good idea. The reality is that we need to face the fact that our Democratic practice is just not fully funded, and, as with WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at best we’ll need to consider how more of our services in the UK can be run and directly supported by volunteers and the wider community.

    At worst it’s quite possible that we’ll be forced to close some of our popular UK services and restrict the  further development of our democracy work internationally.

    In April next year we come to the end of our six-year grant agreement with the Omidyar Network who have given us tremendous support over that time. This will leave a substantial hole in our core funding and it’s one reason why we’ve been so diligently focused on developing appropriate new commercial services like FixMyStreetPro and WhatDoTheyKnowPro.

    Without sufficient unrestricted core funding — that is, funding which can be applied wherever in the organisation it is most needed —  we need to rely much more on specific project funding wherever we can find it. In most cases, however, this project funding comes with its own set of tasks to deliver, and there’s a tendency to want new shiny things, rather than supporting the maintenance of our existing projects. This is especially true of our Democracy work which relies more heavily on grant funding than commercial alternatives.

    Sensibly directing our own work more towards contributions to external projects is also a hedge, should we need to find new homes for our services or shutter them for the time being.

    In the meantime we’ll be speaking to more funders who we hope might recognise the importance of supporting and building the essential infrastructure of the Democratic Commons, but in the event that isn’t forthcoming we’ll do what it takes to ensure our work to date continues to have some value and impact.

    As we start to map out a path to a sustainable future for mySociety and its community, I’d appreciate all thoughts on where we go next with this — after all, we can’t do this without your help.


    Image: Ander Burdain (Unsplash)

  7. Looking forward to Taipei

    It’s only a few days now before we’ll be in Taipei, hosting an extra special edition of TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference — or TICTeC@Taipei as it’s snappily being called.

    TICTeC@Taipei will be the headline event of Civic Tech Fest, Asia’s first ever festival celebrating all things Civic Tech. It’s also an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT), so TICTeC@Taipei attendees will also be able to attend the WCIT, and vice versa.

    We’re super excited about not only TICTeC@Taipei and WCIT, but the other events that are happening during the festival too, which include g0v’s legendary hackathon, the Code for All Summit, State of the Map Taiwan, and Wikimedia Taiwan’s 10th anniversary event. In fact, our only concern is that there will be just too much to choose from!

    We’re looking forward to reconnecting with friends and associates across the global Civic Tech scene, not to mention meeting new faces. It’s such a great opportunity to share ideas, learnings and experiences not just within our own community, but more widely with the WCIT crowd too.

    Attendees will be coming from all around the world: check out the CivicTechFest Google Group to get a snapshot of who will be there. We’re delighted that we’ve been able to provide some travel grants to individuals who wouldn’t have been able to come without support, and we’re really looking forward to meeting them.

    There is also time left to submit a proposal for the unconference part of TICTeC@Taipei. If you have a workshop idea, or want to share your Civic Tech story, you can propose an unconference session idea by filling out this form before 7th September. There will also be time to submit ideas in person on 11th September.

    Feeling a bit envious of all the anticipated fun? There’s still time to register for TICTeC@Taipei, so if you fancy coming to the biggest Civic Tech gathering of the year, get your tickets here!

    While we’re there, we’ll also be making a special announcement about TICTeC 2018. We’ll share it here as well, of course, so watch this space for more information!

  8. What we’ve learned thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow this month

    In the past month over 4,600 Freedom of Information requests made via our site WhatDoTheyKnow resulted in information being released. Volunteer Molly Williams has picked out a few highlights.

    The autopsy of Alexander Litvinenko

    The autopsy of the former Russian spy who was killed in November 2006 by radioactive polonium-210, which is believed to have been slipped into his cup of tea on Putin’s orders, has been described by a pathologist as “the most dangerous post-mortem examination ever undertaken in the western world”.

    An FOI request sent via WhatDoTheyKnow.com to Barts Health NHS Trust, whose care Litvinenko came under when he fell ill with the poisoning, revealed the detailed step-by-step procedure used to carry out his post-mortem safely. The examination determined how he was murdered.

    Read the full response here.

    Thousands of NHS and health bodies are listed on WhatDoTheyKnow, so if you have queries on the data they hold, it’s a great place to start.

    Grenfell displaced person plans

    An FOI request sent after the fire that killed 80 people and burned down a large block of flats in the Kensington and Chelsea area revealed the progress of plans to rehome those left homeless.

    Some key details revealed were that:

    • all regeneration plans have been put on hold in Kensington and Chelsea
    • emergency hotel accommodation in Kensington and Chelsea was offered to all made homeless by the fire
    • there were 179 offers of temporary accommodation made, of which 65 were accepted
    • everyone affected has a dedicated Housing Officer to help them find a new home
    • the council aim to rehome everyone who was made homeless by the fire by June 2018

    Read the full response to the request here.

    Crime statistics at Leeds Festival

    An FOI request sent via WhatDoTheyKnow revealed all the crimes reported from Leeds Festival over the past five years — including sexual offences, drugs, and fraud. It also showed that 2016, the latest year for which statistics were available, was the worst year for crime at the festival, with 200 offences reported. See the request and the full stats here.

    Letter from Chris Grayling ordering GTR to fund a £13.4 million improvement to Southern Rail

    How do you phrase a difficult letter? After it was quoted in national media, a message from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, fining Govia Thameslink Railway for £13.4 million, is now available in full for everyone to read.

    In the letter Grayling stated that “passengers who depend on Southern have been badly let down” and went on to outline what the money will be spent on, including more on-board staff and £7m on “improvements that will directly benefit passengers”.

    Read the letter in full here.

    There are five railways companies listed on WhatDoTheyKnow. Not all of them are subject to FOI, but we list them anyway because we believe them to be subject to the less-known Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). And of course, as in the case mentioned above, you can always request information from public bodies which correspond with, or contract, organisations not covered by FOI.

    Supernatural crime reports in the West Midlands

    A requester asked for any reports on “ghosts, werewolves, witches, aliens, zombies and the like” to the West Midlands Police. Think this is a frivolous question? Well, in the past 12 months no fewer than 10 supernatural sightings have been filed. Following the response, the requester asked for further information on these mysterious sightings and is currently awaiting more detail.

    Read the full response here.

    Football in Worcester

    A request revealed, within a series of released email correspondence, plans to build a community sports stadium and relocate 3D artificial turf playing fields. It also showed the decision process taken, including consideration of the possible effects on the local area. Read what’s happening to football in Worcester here.

    If you want to know more about Sport England’s plans in your local community, you can send an information request to them via WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Seabird and raptor monitoring on the Isle of Rum

    An FOI request sent to Scottish Natural Heritage revealed details of their monitoring of seabirds and raptors including which species they track, their monitoring methods, and research aims.

    Read the details of the methods, findings and staff involved in the monitoring of these incredible birds on our site, here.

    Platelet donors and donations

    Information released by NHS Blood and Donations under FOI revealed how the number of platelet donors and donations has been gradually decreasing since 2010. When responding, the public body helpfully explained the trend in the statistics:

    “NHS Blood and Transplant has gradually reduced the amount of platelets it collects from platelet apheresis donations and increased the amount of platelets it collects by pooling whole blood donations from whole blood donors. This follows the 2013 recommendation made by the Department of Health’s Independent Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) to remove the requirement to provide 80% of platelets to hospitals by apheresis”.

    Read the full response here.

    FOI numbers and staff

    You can even send an FOI request about the handling of FOIs! One requester asked for how many requests to Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council were received in the past three years and the number of staff who deal with them.

    There were a total of 3,160 requests but no designated team dealing with them, which may simply suggest there is an FOI culture embedded throughout the organisation, where the role is combined with other jobs. Read the full response here, and if you, too have a question about FOI requests you might like to send an FOI request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.


    Image: Plumber John (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  9. Camping out

    LocalGovCamp will soon be upon us, so we thought we’d share a few thoughts about why this event, and similar unconferences, are important — and why we at mySociety wanted to support this one.

    This immediately throws up a couple of questions for the uninitiated.

    What is an unconference?

    There are quite a few definitions of ‘unconferences’ out there but all that really matters is that it’s an event where the participants design the agenda on the day, the sessions are informal (eg slidedecks are discouraged) and the law of two feet is encouraged.

    This video – itself from an early LocalGovCamp – does a good job of getting the concept across:

    What is LocalGovCamp?

    Well, LocalGovCamp is the largest and longest running ‘unconference’ for people who work in or are interested in local government. It has been an annual event since 2009 with attendees giving up their Saturdays to travel to various locations across the UK to contribute to the day, listen and learn.

    What is special about unconferences?

    There is a certain magic that occurs at these events when you bring a group of like-minded souls together, in their own time, without the constraints of a prearranged agenda that really fosters a community spirit that has a lasting effect. Useful as the sessions are, it is often the opportunity to find your tribe, to share war stories and to just speak to people who understand what you are working on that is what you come away remembering. A certain amount of unconference as group therapy is certainly not unusual.

    The thing is these connections, these networks that spawn from such events can have real power. They can be impressive catalysts for change and the days when the attendee lists were junior staff lamenting the lack of decision-makers in the room are gone – at a recent central government GovCamp two Permanent Secretaries attended and at this upcoming LocalGovCamp the newly announced first Chief Digital Officer for London will be there, amongst other senior leaders.

    Local government is obviously something that mySociety is passionate about – our FixMyStreet service in particular is entirely embedded in that domain – and we were keen to help sponsor the event this year… and not just because getting a ticket to attend is like gold dust! We’re really looking forward to meeting and chatting to friends old and new, finding out what are the big challenges (and opportunities) facing teams in local government at the moment and hopefully contributing to a few sessions.

    We’ll also be at Govcamp Cymru in Cardiff and OpenDataCamp in Belfast during October so if you are going to be at any of these events please say hi. We have high-quality stickers for your laptop 🙂

     

    Header image: Glen Wood (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  10. When Westminster Was Wikified

    Last Saturday (August 19th) at Newspeak House in London, mySociety and Wikimedia UK held the “Wikifying Westminster” workshop, a day-long event to encourage people to get involved with Wikidata, but also to give a taste of what people can build with the data that is already there.

    The vision: one day, complex investigations which currently take researchers a lot of time, such as “how many MPs are descended from people who were also MPs” or “how many people named X were MPs in year Y”, will be answerable with data from Wikidata using a single SPARQL query…

    …but we’re not quite there yet. Currently, some data is scattered all over separate databases (which sometimes get shut down or disappear); some is just plain missing; and most frustrating of all, some is in place but there’s no apparent way to get it out of the database.

    In order to make this vision a reality, we need to experiment with the data, find ways to check how complete it is, and explore what questions we can currently answer with it. Events like Wikifying Westminster are the perfect opportunity to do just that.

    After a brief introduction to Wikidata and the EveryPolitician project, we split into two groups: one focused on learning how to use Wikidata, while the other focused on working on mini-projects.

    Here’s a taste of what happened…

    Learning track

    The learning track began by introducing new users to the basic Wikidata editing principles (or “getting data into Wikidata”). Participants were able to put their new skills into action immediately, by adding missing data on British MPs, who were mostly lacking dates and places of birth.

    By the end of the first session, good progress had been made, particularly on obtaining dates of birth for current British parliamentarians. For some reason, though, it proved much harder to find these for women than for men: we can only speculate as to why that might be (do some still adhere to the idea that a woman shouldn’t reveal her age?!).

    Lucas query Wikidata

    Lucas Werkmeister from Wikimedia Deutschland shows how Wikidata query service works (photo credits: Lucy Chambers)

    We were also given an introduction to SPARQL, a language used to query information on databases (or “getting data out of Wikidata”). Lucas Werkmeister introduced the Wikidata query service and explained a few tricks to help with using it. Participants were later able to put this to the test by running progressively difficult test queries such as “All current UK MPs” or “Who is the youngest current MP?”

    Also, Navino Evans showed us the potential of reusing data, talking about Histropedia, which he co-created with Sean McBirnie. Histropedia is an awesome tool that lets you visualise thousands of topics on interactive timelines: you can browse through existing ones or create a new one from scratch.

    Hacking track

    This group both worked on improving data and looked at how well we could answer some simple “stepping stone” queries (i.e. small questions to which we already knew some of the answers) as a heuristic of how good the data in Wikidata already is. You can see and contribute questions to the list of test queries here.

    Some more details:
    Improving data. The focus here was on the Northern Ireland Assembly, for which Wikidata now has full membership history back to the foundation of the Assembly, and on adding academic degrees of cabinet ministers. Starting from an excellent spreadsheet of the undergraduate universities and subjects of UK politicians and ministers (going back to John Major’s cabinets), we tried to upload that data on the relevant items, adding the qualifier “academic major” (P812) to the property “educated at” (P69). In this case, the key problem we found was that we weren’t sure how to model when people did joint subjects, like “Maths and Politics”, convincing us to concentrate on the more obvious subjects first.

    Answering some unusual and/or intriguing questions. Inspired by a prior finding that there are more FTSE 100 CEOs named John than there are female ones, and that John is historically the most common name of UK parliamentarians, we thought we’d find out when exactly the John-to-female balance was toppled amongst the UK’s MPs (hint: not until 1992).

    Going back further in history, we queried the first time each given name was recorded in Parliament, this was inspired by a recent news article about an MP who claimed he was the first “Darren” in the Commons.

    Some ideas were also born that we weren’t able to see through, for various reasons. For example, could we discover which, if any, MPs are descended from people listed in the UCL’s ‘Legacy of British Slave-owners’ database? An interesting question, but at the moment, the answer is ‘no’, partly because child-parent relationships are currently inconsistently modelled in Wikidata, and partly because of the nature of Wikidata and ancestry: if there is someone who doesn’t exist in Wikidata (e.g. Grandad Bob, the painter) in the family chain, Wikidata can’t bridge the gap between a present day MP and the slave owner who might be their ancestor.

    This is just the beginning

    Work, of course, is still ongoing: all pre-1997 UK data is still to be inserted or improved on Wikidata, and so much more is missing – family connections, academic degrees, links to other databases, and all sorts of “unusual stuff” that can be used for interesting queries.

    This data is crucial if we want to be able to answer the really big questions which Wikidata should one day be capable of helping us explore, about what politicians do.

    We can do that together!

    Wikifying Westminster - Build cool things with Wikidata


    (photo credits: Lucy Chambers)

    We hope that events like this give people an easy way in to Wikidata and also show them what’s already possible to achieve with the data. Over the coming months, we are hoping to support more events of this type around the world. If you are interested in getting involved, here’s how:

    • Want to improve your country’s data? Events like this can be a great way to help kickstart activities and find other people who share your goals. We are happy to help out and support people in other countries to do so.
    • Are you already organising or planning to organise a similar workshop around Wikidata? Make sure it is listed on the Wikidata Event page!
    • Do you want to attend future workshops? Follow us on Twitter to stay updated about events that we are running, and ones that other people are too!

    We’re also always looking for feedback and suggestions on workshop and event formats that might also work. Have you already run similar workshops? Let us know your impressions and suggestions on team@everypolitician.org!

    Feature image credits: Mark Longair