1. Making votes easier to understand

    Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.

    Supported by a grant from Open Society Foundations, we’re now displaying  MPs’, Lords’ and Scottish Parliament votes on TheyWorkForYou more graphically, making them easier to understand at a glance:

    (Click the image to see this vote in situ.)

    For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.

    Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.

    Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:

    • All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
    • The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
    • As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.

    If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.

    We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.


    Image: Katie McNabb

  2. See maps of FixMyStreet reports across the UK

    With funding from the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) we’ve been working with researchers from the University of Sheffield and University of Sterling to open up FixMyStreet data for researchers.

    For an example of the kind of thing that can be done with this data, this group have produced maps for every local authority in the UK, mapping FixMyStreet reports against indices of deprivation (a few examples: Sheffield, Harrogate and Cardiff). These can be explored on our mini-site, where for each authority you can also download a printable poster with additional statistics.

    If you’d like to know more about what these maps mean and what we learned from the process, there’s a report exploring what we learned here.

  3. What we have learned from hunting for electoral boundary data

    You may remember that in August this year, mySociety and Open Knowledge International launched a survey, looking for the sources of digital files that hold electoral boundaries… for every country in the world. Well, we are still looking!

    There is a good reason for this hunt: the files are integral for people who want to make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, who need to be able to match users to the right representative. From mySociety’s site TheyWorkForYou to Surfers against Sewage’s Plastic Free Parliament campaign, to Call your Rep in the US, all these tools required boundary data before they could be built.

    We know that finding this data openly licensed is still a real challenge for many countries, which is of course why we launched the survey. We encourage people to continue to submit links to the survey, and we would love if people experienced in electoral boundary data, could help by reviewing submissions: if you are able to offer a few hours of help, please email democracy@mysociety.org

    The EveryBoundary survey FAQs tell you everything you need to know about what to look for when boundary hunting. But we also wanted to share some top tips that we have learnt through our own experiences.

    Do

    • Start the search by looking at authoritative sources first: electoral commissions, national mapping agencies, national statistics bodies, government data portals.
    • Look for data formats (.shp, .geojson, kml etc), and not just a PDF.
    • Ask around if you can’t find the data: if a map is published digitally, then the data behind it exists somewhere!

    Don’t

    • Confuse administrative boundaries with electoral boundaries — they can be the same, but they often aren’t (even when they share a name).
    • Assume boundaries stay the same — check for redistricting, and make sure your data is current.

    If you get stuck

    • Electoral boundaries are normally defined in legislation; sometimes this takes the form of lists of the administrative subdivisions which make up the electoral districts. If you can get the boundaries for the subdivisions you can build up the electoral districts with this information.
    • Make FOI requests to get hold of the data.
    • If needed, escalate the matter. We have heard of groups writing to their representatives, explaining the need for the data. And don’t forget: building tools that strengthen democracy is a worthwhile cause.  

    mySociety is asking people to share electoral boundary data as part of efforts to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, and support the creation of a Democratic Commons.  Electoral boundary files are an essential part of the data infrastructure of a Democratic Commons. A directory of electoral boundary sources is a potential benefit to many people and organisations  — so let’s keep up the search!

    Photo: Chase Clark

  4. Improving the quality and consistency of political data in Wikidata

    What we’ve done — and what we want to do

    Wikidata now has up-to-date and consistent data on political position holders in current national legislatures for at least 39 countries (and work in progress for over 60 countries), thanks to work by volunteer community members on the Wikiproject every politician. mySociety worked as part of this project with a Wikimedia Foundation grant in 2017-18.

    There is now a real possibility for Wikidata to become the definitive source of data about democracies worldwide — but only if that data can be maintained sustainably. A significant risk is that elections and other major political changes quickly render data on political position holders and legislatures in Wikidata out-of-date.

    We’re proposing a Wikidata post-election updating toolkit project, which aims to ensure that data on elected representatives is substantially correct and complete within a month following an election, leading to improved quality and consistency of data in Wikidata over time. We’ll work as part of the Wikidata community to create and signpost tools and pathways that help contributors to quickly, easily and consistently update data following an election or other political change.

    How community members can get involved in the project

    If you’re already active around data relevant to political position holders, legislatures, or elections in Wikidata, we’d like your feedback and help to test the new tools and guidance and ensure that they are consistent with the emerging consensus around modelling these types of data.

    In particular, if you live in a country or major region that has an upcoming election, please talk to us about piloting the tools! We’d like for you to test the project tools and guidance to update data following your country’s election, and to give us feedback on the value and appropriateness of the approach in your context and political system.

    In general, we’re keen to encourage discussion and evaluation of Wikidata as a source of current position holder data.

    Please review our proposal

    If you’re interested in this, and are active on Wiki projects, please have a look and review our proposal here.

    Image: Mike Alonzo

  5. How your MP voted… in your email inbox

    If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.

    From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.

    The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.

    This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.

    Find out more about votes

    Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.

    How to sign up for alerts

    Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.

    Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.

    Image: Luca Micheli

  6. EveryPolitician data plays a key role in campaigning! But we need more stories like this…

    As we’ve highlighted in recent posts, EveryPolitician is an open dataset.

    We’ve always been strong advocates of open data, but there’s no doubt that it come with its own challenges. For example, when data is freely and openly available, without even the need for registration, we have very little idea of who is accessing it. That, in turn, makes it hard to prove that the project is having impact…and subsequently to find funders to support the maintenance of the project.

    So we were fortunate that user research interviews for the Democratic Commons led us to Andrew from New/Mode. New/Mode deliver advocacy and engagement tools that are used by hundreds of the top campaign, nonprofits and advocacy organisations around the world.  

    These tools are connecting people to their representatives, so information is key: specifically, information on who politicians are and how to contact them. And that’s just what EveryPolitician is, in part*, providing for New/Mode’s tools which are used by groups in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.

    We asked Andrew what impacts have been created through New/Mode’s tools, and he told us that:

    • In the UK, ONE’s supporters sent 6,500 emails to MPs over the space of a week, helping to successfully pressure MPs to vote for a Sanctions and Anti Money Laundering Bill that increases transparency and cracks down on global corruption.
    • In the US, Win Without War used New/Mode tools with EveryPolitician data to block a defence bill that would have given Trump more nuclear access. The Sunrise Movement is currently using New/Mode tools to push for swift action on climate change.
    • In Canada, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East prompted 16,000 emails to Canadian MPs in support of Trudeau’s comments condemning violence against unarmed Palestinian protesters.

    We need more of these stories to help us build a picture of who uses EveryPolitician and why it is important, to make a case for why we should keep working on it. As mySociety’s Mark Cridge outlined in a previous post, we’ve recognised that EveryPolitician can only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort, which is why we are collaborating with Wikidata — but we still need the resources to do that.

    Any ideas, or suggestions, please let us know by emailing democracy@mysociety.org

    *PS, In case you were wondering which APIs New/Mode uses, here is a breakdown:

    • Currently, Open North’s Represent is providing the bulk of the data for Canadian politicians. But senators’ data and Twitter handles for the MPs and senators are pulled from EveryPolitician.
    • For the US, Google Civic does a good job of providing the bulk of information, but again EveryPolitician is used for congressional fax numbers and to fill in any blanks with Google Civic data.
    • In the UK, New/Mode are using another mySociety tool, Maplt alongside EveryPolitician. EveryPolitician data is only available for the national level of politicians as yet.
    • For Australia where they focus on national politicians, the data is drawn from a mixture of Open Australia and again EveryPolitician.

    Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

     

  7. FixMyStreet Pro says ‘Hi’ to Oxfordshire’s HIAMS

    Our client councils continue to test our integration mettle with the many and varied internal systems they use.

    One nice thing about FixMyStreet Pro, from the council point of view, is that it can play nicely with any internal council system, passing reports wherever they are needed and feeding updates back to the report-maker and onto the live site. What keeps life interesting is that there’s a huge variety of differing set-ups across every council, so there’s always something new to learn.

    Oxfordshire County Council are a case in point. They’ve been a client of ours since 2013, and back in May they asked if we could work with them to integrate their new highways asset maintenance system HIAMS, supplied by WDM, and make sure the whole kaboodle could work with FixMyStreet Pro as well.

    At the same time, they needed an update to their co-branded version of FixMyStreet to match a new design across the council website. FixMyStreet can take on any template so that it fits seamlessly into the rest of the site.

    Oxfordshire County Council's installation of FixMyStreet

    As FixMyStreet was well embedded and citizens were already using it, it was vital to ensure that the disruption was kept to a minimum, both for report-makers and members of staff dealing with enquiries.

    We worked closely with WDM and Oxfordshire County Council to create a connector that would pass information the user entered on Oxfordshire’s FixMyStreet installation or the national FixMyStreet website into the new WDM system, with the correct categories and details already completed.

    Once we saw data going into the system successfully, the next task was to get updates back out. One single report could take a long journey, being passed from WDM onto another system and then back through to WDM before an update came to the user. We didn’t want to leave the report-maker wondering what was happening, so it was crucial to ensure that updates came back to them as smoothly and quickly as possible.

    The integration between FixMyStreet and WDM is now live and working. Users will receive an update whenever their report’s status is changed within the WDM system, meaning there’s no need for them to follow up with a phone call or email — a win for both citizens and councils.

    It all went smoothly from our point of view, but let’s hear from Anna Fitzgerald, Oxfordshire’s Infrastructure Information Management Principal Officer:

    “We’ve been using FixMyStreet Pro since 2013 as it’s a system which is easy to integrate and our customers love it.

    “From an IT support side; integrating the new system to FixMyStreet Pro was seamless. The team at mySociety have been a pleasure to work with, are extremely helpful, knowledgeable and organised. They make you feel like you are their top priority at all times, nothing was ever an issue.

    “Now that we have full integration with the new system, the process of updating our customers happens instantaneously. FixMyStreet Pro has also given us flexibility to change how we communicate with our customers, how often we communicate; and all in real time.

    “What’s more, our Members and management team love it as it has greatly reduced the amount of calls to our customer services desk, which saves a lot of money for the council.”

    As always, we’re delighted to hear such positive feedback. If you’re from a council and would like to explore the benefits FixMyStreet Pro could bring you, please do get in touch.

    Image: Suad Kamardeen

  8. Finding the right way to keep it in the community

    One thing that’s not always talked about in tech is that sometimes projects take a few twists and turns before they find their final path. That’s certainly true of our Keep It In The Community project (KIITC) which aims to map Assets of Community Value across England, in collaboration with Power To Change and MHCLG.

    We’ve been blogging about the project as we progress, and if you read Mark’s blog in September you’ll have seen that we began with plans for a full central register, which would retrieve and keep in sync with information from council websites to present a countrywide overview of ACVs, and also allow community groups to register new ones.

    As we’d feared, we found that data from councils is in many varied formats, and is often moved around, meaning that getting the site to update automatically as we had first hoped would just be too difficult with the quite fragile approach of scraping and swapping spreadsheets that we had originally explored.

    And so we launched KIITC with a snapshot of the data as it existed in September 2018, all manually added by hand, and added functionality that would allow councils to maintain their own records if desired.

    Now, there’s another twist in the tale — we’re bringing some of our original vision back to the table. We’re planning some more development which will increase KIITC’s value for everyone: communities, citizens and councils alike.

    Features for community groups

    If councils don’t have the resources to maintain anything beyond the legally required bare bones register of assets, the community groups who care so passionately about the places and spaces they’re trying to secure will soon be able to get involved and help.

    This penny dropped when, in discussions with Locality, the national network supporting community groups, (and who are also funded by Power To Change) we determined that by working together more closely we could realise the ambition we have for KIITC to be a live up to date register of community assets of all types in England.

    With their collaboration, we’ll be able to talk to community groups to find out their needs, and then develop features for KIITC that will allow these groups to update existing ACVs and register new ones with details, photographs and stories.

    As part of that work in the next couple of months we’ll be adding the ability for anyone to update asset details on the site if they have more up to date information, and we’ll be improving how we display each asset to be more informative and attractive on the page.

    So watch this space as we work together on the latest twist in KIITC’s tail as we keep working on this over the next few months.


    Image: Donnie Rose (Unsplash)

  9. Parliament and people: research report launch

    Thanks to everyone who braved the very long queues to get into Parliament yesterday — ironically, they were battling for access to a meeting about making parliaments easier to access!

    We hope that those who waited over an hour to gain entry to the House of Lords committee room felt that it was worth it, despite the wintry temperatures.

    Launching Parliament and the People

    Parliament and the people: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa is the result of two in-depth fact-finding trips to Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda by our research team. Read the report here.

    While visiting these countries, report authors Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder spoke to numerous activists, civil servants, elected representatives and civic tech organisations to fully understand just how political information is disseminated digitally in the region.

    Their findings give both a unique insight into how technology is being used in sub-Saharan Africa right now, but also allowed for the formulating of six key recommendations for anyone funding or building tech for political engagement. We believe they will apply anywhere in the world.

    parliament-and-people

    Speakers

    Great thanks to our invited guests who gave us the benefit of their experience and insights into a wide range of associated areas.

    Joining mySociety’s Mark Cridge for hosting duties was Lord Purvis of Tweed, who as a member of the International Relations Committee has an interest in digital tools that help build better, more responsive societies.

    After an overview of the report findings by our own Dr Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder, there was a discussion with Paul Lenz of Indigo Trust, Julia Keutgen of Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Tom Walker of the Engine Room.

    Recommendations

    The full report is a great read, but if you only have time to take away the key points, here they are in an easily-digestible form.

    1 – Conduct thorough scoping exercises in-country before committing to fund, build or implement a specific solution, and use the intelligence gathered to inform the final product.

    Paul Lenz previously worked for mySociety, and recalled the process of setting up projects inspired by our own TheyWorkForYou parliamentary monitoring website, for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. He’s now working for Indigo, the grant-makers who made those projects possible, so he’s seen both sides of the picture.

    Paul described the act of lifting tech from a UK context and ‘parachuting it in, often at the behest of the in-country organisations themselves, who had seen it working well’ as, in retrospect, a mistake. Rebecca stressed that we need to ask the projected end-users what they need, rather than telling them. Work from the ground up, not the top down.

    Tom added that in-depth scoping research is always useful, and described occasions when it had showed his organisation that a proposed new technology tool was not necessary because local groups were already tackling the problem in other ways. He suggests organisations use the Alidade tool to create a plan for finding technology tools that suit their social change project.

    2 – Work with in-country partners that have a good working relationship with their parliament, and ensure the digital tool is integrated into both their regular work and future discussions with parliament about improving civic engagement

    Again, Paul brought insights from mySociety’s early days, when we positioned ourselves almost as renegade outsiders — in the early days of TheyWorkForYou, for example, we were even threatened with litigation for publishing Hansard without permission. 15 years later, says Paul, we’ve broadly come to understand that it’s far more sensible to work with institutions than against them.

    Some Parliaments may be hostile to overtures from NGOs, but the key is often to find one sympathetic individual and discover what you can do, digitally, for them. That tends to open doors.

    Julia brought in the role of parliaments as distinct from government, especially in relation to scrutiny and committee hearings. Committees need to be open to public record, as they are often closed sessions.

    3 – Make peace with solutions that aren’t necessarily replicable, because a good digital platform that is built to be specifically appropriate to each country’s unique governance structure will likely be better used and have greater longevity than platform structures replicated wholesale from other jurisdictions.

    Each of the countries examined for this report had their own distinct profile when it came to political dissemination by digital means.

    Often these are shaped by factors such as access to the internet or mobile data: is it cheap and available to all sectors of society? Attitudes to politics will have been shaped by the country’s history, and will require different means by which to encourage engagement with the democratic process. These, and many other factors, cannot be shoehorned into a one size fits all solution.

    4 – Ensure that comprehensive, good quality, data sources are identified before trying to build anything, because poor or inconsistent data is one of the most common issues that threatens the operability of digital tools for parliamentary monitoring.

    Contact details of politicians quickly become obsolete — in one of the countries examined, it was common for politicians to change them frequently, specifically to prevent easy access by constituents! Activists have better things to do than collect and maintain data, so input in this area can be extremely helpful – which is the thinking behind our own Democratic Commons project.

    5 – Ensure ongoing, stable funding for maintenance and growth, and ensure this encompasses both development and non-development work, as without this, the platform will rapidly become out of date, and is likely to fall into obsolescence.
     Bad tech ‘poisons the well’, and so do projects that launch with a fanfare but then fall by the wayside as funding is removed. Well-meaning projects can even do more harm than good, if they result in potential users mistrusting new projects because previous ones have made them jaded.

    6 – Integrate digital tools as much as possible with relevant social media platforms, as shareable and user-friendly content is likely to be disseminated much more widely through these channels, than through visits to the tool itself.

    One significant point is that in some countries, internet access is constrained to a few ring-fenced platforms sold as a bundle by mobile phone providers: those subscribing to these very common data packages will never see a parliamentary monitoring website, no matter how beautiful it is, if it can’t be accessed via Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter — and especially if it is heavy to load and eats into a rigid data allowance.

    Of course it’s far more exciting to launch a new site or an app, but the reality is that a quick video clip or graphic that can be easily shared by social media may have much further reach.

     

    Hopefully that has given you a taster of the debate around the report launch and the salient points you’ll find within. For a much more in-depth look at digital democracy in the region, download the report, for free, now.

     

  10. Coming Soon! Parliaments, People and Digital Development Report

    On Wednesday 21st November we will be launching our latest research report ‘Parliaments and the People: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa’.

    This report presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.

    The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.

    The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.

    The full report will be published here on our news feed, via Amazon Kindle, and on our social media feed at 4pm on the 21st November to coincide with a launch event for the report at the House of Lords. That event is now fully subscribed, but please follow along on Twitter #ParliamentsandPeople and @mysociety to share the report and join the conversation.