For a while now, TheyWorkForYou has shown how your MP voted on key topics.
What it hasn’t done, until this week, is give a crucial piece of context. That is, how do your MP’s votes differ from those of their colleagues in the same party?
We all know that, on many issues, the whip ensures that MPs vote according to the party line rather than their own convictions. So in theory, by examining the votes which diverge from the majority party vote, we might get the clearest picture of what an MP truly cares about.
And now, we’ve added a small piece of code to the site, which allows us to do just that. At the top of your MP’s page, you’ll now see text along these lines:
If your MP never disagrees with their party, you’ll just see the top line followed by a random selection of votes.
The importance of wording
The screenshot above shows another small change we’ve made to TheyWorkForYou: just a matter of wording, this time.
When we first started displaying how MPs had voted, we used terms such as “voted strongly for”, “voted moderately against”, etc. This was to allow us to represent a range of positions along a spectrum for each topic.
For every topic, such as EU Integration, or smoking bans, several different votes are analysed. The ‘show votes’ button, as seen above, takes you to a page where these are listed.
However, we received a steady stream of emails, tweets and Facebook messages asking how an MP can vote ‘strongly’ or ‘moderately’ for something. To a fly-by reader, it seemed nonsensical, because of course they were thinking of that fact that MPs vote for or against a single motion.
To counteract this, we’ve used words which we hope encapsulate the concept of a series of votes over time – words like ‘consistently’, ‘occasionally’ and ‘never’.
Choosing these words proved to be harder than we’d anticipated, and, after a long heated discussion between colleagues, resulted in a straw poll asking anyone we could find to arrange pieces of paper in a line to indicate how they perceived their strength.
We finally came up with an answer that the majority agreed on—and we haven’t had any mail on the subject since then. Let’s cautiously call that a win for careful wording.
If you need data on the people who make up your parliament, another country’s parliament, or indeed all parliaments, you may be in luck.
What’s more, it’s all provided as Open Data to anyone who would like to use it to power a civic tech project. We’re thinking parliamentary monitoring organisations, journalists, groups who run access-to-democracy sites like our own WriteToThem, and especially researchers who want to do analysis across multiple countries.
But isn’t that data already available?
Yes and no. There’s no doubt that you can find details of most parliaments online, either on official government websites, on Wikipedia, or on a variety of other places online.
But, as you might expect from data that’s coming from hundreds of different sources, it’s in a multitude of different formats. That makes it very hard to work with in any kind of consistent fashion.
Every Politician standardises all of its data into the Popolo standard and then provides it in two simple downloadable formats:
- csv, which contains basic data that’s easy to work with on spreadsheets
- JSON which contains richer data on each person, and is ideal for developers
This standardisation means that it should now be a lot easier to work on projects across multiple countries, or to compare one country’s data with another. It also means that data works well with other Poplus Components.
What can I do with it?
Need a specific example? Yesterday, we introduced Gender Balance, the game that gathers data about women in politics.
As you’ll know if you’ve already given it a try, Gender Balance works by displaying politicians that make up one of the world’s legislatures, one by one.
That data all comes from Every Politician, and it’s meant that the developers have been able to concentrate on making a smooth and functional interface, knowing that the data side of things has already been taken care of.
That’s just one way to use Every Politician data, though. If you’d like to use it in your own site or app, you can find out more here.
We still need more data
As you may have noticed, there are more than 100 parliaments in the world. In fact, despite having reached what feels like a fairly substantial milestone, we’re still barely half way to getting some data for every parliament.
So we could use your help in finding data for the parliaments we don’t yet cover, and historic information for the ones we do. Read more about how you can help out.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are over 180 parliaments in the world — but what percentage of their members are female?
The crazy thing is, there’s no definitive figure*.
So we created Gender Balance, an easy game that crowd-sources gender data across every parliament in the world. Try it! We hope you’ll find it fun.
Gender Balance isn’t just an enjoyable way to fill half an hour, though: users will be helping to build up a dataset that will be useful for researchers, campaigners, politicians, and sociologists. As the results emerge, we’ll be making them available in an open format for anyone to use, to answer questions like:
- Which country has the highest proportion of women in parliament?
- Do women vote differently on issues like defence, the environment, or maternity benefits?
- Exactly when did women come into power in different countries, and did their presence change the way the country was run?
Gender Balance’s underlying data comes from another mySociety project—EveryPolitician, a database which aims to collect information on every politician in the world.
And while it’s nailing down those stats on gender balance across every country, Gender Balance also aims to be a showcase of what can be done with the open data from EveryPolitician. That data is free for anyone who wants to build tools like this, and it’s easy to use, too. Find out more about that here.
*While the Inter-Parliamentary Union does collect figures, they are self-reported, often out of date, and only cover its own members.
If you live almost anywhere in the UK, you can use FixMyStreet to report problems to councils.
The vast majority of councils have no problem with this, and they do a good job of responding to and dealing with reported problems. A bunch of councils even like the service enough that they’ve actually become clients, paying for customised versions that sit on their own websites.
But there have always been a small number of councils that have said ‘no dice’ to FixMyStreet: they either refuse to accept reports at all, or they tell FixMyStreet users to re-submit problems through another channel. Today the total number in the ‘no thanks’ column stands at ten councils – that’s out of about 430 in total.
Idealism versus Pragmatism
Recently we had a bit of a debate about what to do. On the one hand we want users to succeed in getting their problems fixed. But on the other we don’t want councils to simply opt out of the transparency and convenience that FixMyStreet offers.
We could digress into a long post with many other related issues, but today we’re simply talking about how we have decided to change the user interface for users trying to report problems to the minority of councils that claim not to be able to cope.
What to expect if you report a problem in the unlucky 2% of the UK
In order not to leave you high and dry, we’ll provide a link to the council’s own reporting system—because, irrespective of the platform, your report still needs to be made.
But we don’t think that this situation should be quietly accepted, by us or by our users, especially since it means some councils get to simply opt out of transparency about problem handling.
So at the same time we’re telling a user how to report the problem, we’ll also invite them to tweet about it, and/or contact their local councillors.
Why the situation arose
You may be wondering why some authorities won’t accept our reports. We do not, after all, ask councils to adapt or modify their internal systems in any special way, unless they actively want to adopt the Open311 standard.
The messages our users generate are just plain text emails, and they go into the same email inboxes as any other message to a council would.
These reports are carefully appended with lots of useful details, too, including the category of the problem, its exact longitude and latitude, and the postcode or street address where available. Users can also attach photos.
Generally the reason cited for not accepting such email reports (or the same reports made by the industry standard Open311 API) is that the computer system inside the council can only handle problems reported via the council’s own official web interface. Why this is only a problem in 2% of councils is a mystery that remains to be solved.
Does your council accept FixMyStreet reports? Input your postcode on the site, and see if you get the alert. If not – there’s no problem.
In 2005, UK citizens obtained rights under the Freedom of Information Act. In a nutshell, we have the right to ask publicly-funded bodies for information, and, if they hold the information, in most cases they are obliged to provide it.
While these rights are highly beneficial to the populace, they do, of course, prove worrisome, inconvenient and irritating to some of those in public office. They were scrutinised once in 2013, by a Justice Committee at which WhatDoTheyKnow were invited to give evidence, and now there looks to be another potential attack.
On Friday, the Cabinet Office announced the establishment of a cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information, in a statement which on the one hand asserts their commitment to transparency, and on the other suggests a desire to move away from it under certain circumstances.
Pivotal to the announcement is the stated aim to ensure that “a private space is protected for frank advice” within government policy-making, which we interpret to mean that the law would be modified to ring-fence certain information, preventing its access via the FOI Act. As has already been suggested elsewhere (for example, on the BBC website), the commission’s review panel might have been pre-selected specifically to include known opponents to the Act.
The WhatDoTheyKnow team, supported by mySociety and its overseeing body UKCOD, agree with the Cabinet Office’s statement that the advances made in government transparency since the introduction of the Act are to be broadly welcomed.
However, we are also gravely concerned by the proposal for restricting the FOI Act’s reach within government. We hope that the commission will consider that, while there is a cost to Freedom of Information, there is also a huge benefit to the nation.
Freedom of Information allows citizens to access information from public bodies, the authorities that we fund ourselves. When those bodies operate in secrecy, they are hiding truth from not only the people they are supposed to serve, but the people who finance their very existence.
It’s the sign of a thriving democracy when the actions of our governing bodies are functionally transparent. FOI helps uncover and discourage corruption, and provides checks and balances to the actions of the authorities working on our behalf.
But for FOI to really work it has to be applied across all departments, in all public bodies, with as few loopholes or exceptions as possible. If Government itself is shown to be sidestepping its responsibilities in transparency, then what is to stop other authorities from taking their cue from them? As we learned at our recent Alaveteli conference, during which we heard from practitioners running FOI sites in many countries, when bodies stop responding to requests, public accountability suffers.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we know there’s a massive public demand for information, because we process more than 5,000 FOI requests per month. The information that we then publish online is accessed on average by a further 20 readers per request. We strongly wish to be able to go on providing this service to our users, and for it to apply across all public authorities.
We await concrete proposals being made available for a full public consultation, whereupon we would be keen to participate from our unique position of running WhatDoTheyKnow, the UK’s only public freedom of information website. We will be doing all we can to defend your right to information—from every authority.
Image: Redvers (CC-BY-ND)
Private data, containing personal details of the general public, is accidentally released by public authorities at least once a fortnight, say mySociety.
The volunteer team behind WhatDoTheyKnow, mySociety’s freedom of information website, have dealt with 154 accidental data leaks made by bodies such as councils, government departments and other public authorities since 2009, and these are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg.
On the basis of this evidence, we are again issuing an urgent call for public authorities everywhere to tighten up their procedures.
How WhatDoTheyKnow works
Under the Freedom of Information act, anyone in the UK may request information from a public body.
WhatDoTheyKnow makes the process of filing an FOI request very easy: users can do so online. The site publishes the requests and their responses, creating a public archive of information.
Public authorities operate under a code of conduct that requires personal information is removed or anonymised before data is released: for example, while a request for the number of people on a council housing waiting list may be calculated from a list including names, addresses and the reason for housing need, the information provided should not include those details.
Accidental data releases become particularly problematic when the data requested concerns the details of potentially vulnerable people.
Hidden data is not always hidden
When users request information through WhatDoTheyKnow, it’s often provided in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. But unfortunately, private data is sometimes included on those spreadsheets, usually because the staff member who provides it doesn’t understand how to anonymise it effectively.
For example, data which is in hidden tabs, or pivot tables, can be revealed by anyone who has basic spreadsheet knowledge, with just a couple of clicks.
By its very nature, data held by our public authorities can be extremely sensitive: imagine, for example, lists of people on a child protection register, lists of people who receive benefits, or as happened back in 2012, a list of all council housing applicants, including each person’s name and sexuality.
Our latest warning is triggered by an incident earlier this month, in which Northamptonshire County Council accidentally published data on over 1,400 children, including their names, addresses, religion and SEN status. Thanks to the exceptionally fast work of both the requester and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, it was removed within just a few hours of publication, and the incident has been reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Concerned residents should contact the ICO or the council itself.
Advice for FOI officers
Back in June 2013, we set out the advice that we think every FOI officer should know. That advice still stands:
- Don’t release Excel pivot tables created from spreadsheets containing personal information, as the source data is likely to be still present in the Excel file.
- Ensure those within an organisation who are responsible for anonymising data for release have the technical competence to fulfil their roles.
- Check the file sizes. If a file is a lot bigger than it ought to be, it could be that there are thousands of rows of data still present in it that you don’t want to release.
- Consider preparing information in a plain text format, eg. CSV, so you can review the contents of the file before release.
Part of a larger picture
Not every FOI request is made through WhatDoTheyKnow—many people will send their requests directly to the public authority. Moreover, we can only react to the breaches that we are aware of: there are, in all probability, far more which remain undiscovered.
But because of WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy of making information accessible to all, by publishing it on the site, it’s now possible to see what an endemic problem this kind of treatment of personal data is.
When we come across incidents like these, we act very rapidly to remove the personal information. We then inform the public authority who provided the response. We encourage them to self-report to the Information Commissioner’s Office, and where the data loss is very serious, we may make an additional report ourselves.
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22!
Luke Bacon improved the design and accessibility of the search form.
Code quality came top of the list at AlaveteliCon 2015. This release includes contributions from James McKinney, Henare Degan, Caleb Tutty, Petter Reinholdtsen and Gorm Eriksen – all helping to clean up code, make Alaveteli work even better and make it easier to translate.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s Public Authority pages were suffering, so we took a dive in to the code around this area. Improving it had a huge impact on the page we were looking at and should have benefits across the application.
Maintenance & Security
When enabled, each request has a “Create a widget for this request” action available in the sidebar.
Any visitor can copy the iframe embed code to paste on their own website.
Waving Goodbye to the Past
You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed.
Back in March, mySociety’s founder Tom Steinberg, announced that he would step down.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that later this month I will be taking over the reins as Tom’s successor. I’m Mark Cridge, and I guess I should start by introducing myself.
I’ve had a diverse 20-year career doing digital things. Most recently I was chief operating officer with the lovely folks at BERG, a London-based technology and design consultancy many of you might know. For the past year I was a senior advisor at Blue State Digital in London, the team responsible for the digital strategy used in President Obama’s electoral campaigns.
I began my career back in 1996 in a small web design agency in Birmingham, before setting up glue London, a digital advertising agency, going on to become global managing director of Isobar, following glue’s acquisition in 2005. I originally studied Architecture before realising that wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and that the internet held more immediate attractions.
I’m genuinely excited to take what I’ve learned over my time to date, and to apply it to help build on Tom’s achievements as mySociety’s founder — by creating even more digital tools that make a difference to the lives of citizens in Britain and around the world.
What I’ll be focusing on
mySociety’s mission is unchanged: we exist to invent and popularise new digital tools that enable citizens to exert power over institutions and decision makers.
My initial priorities will be to ensure that mySociety’s existing sites keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of civic technologies, whilst also thinking through where we can move into new and exciting areas.
I want to make a new push to ensure that charities, activists and journalists around the world are able to run successful, high profile sites of their own, powered by mySociety’s open source technologies.
We will also be building up our research team over the next few years, to ensure that we are providing tools and services that have genuine impact, which we ourselves are able to measure.
All of which will build towards a reaffirmation of mySociety’s place as a key player within the global civic technology movement.
Making this all possible
Of course, all of this is possible only thanks to the generous support of our many funders — and needless to say we are always looking for more, if you think you can help then please do let me know. In particular, I will be spending a good deal of time delivering the three-year vision we developed with our friends at the Omidyar Network, with whom we announced a major $3.6m funding partnership earlier this year.
That said, one of mySociety’s great assets is that we are not entirely reliant on donor funding, so I will also retain our strong focus on helping our commercial clients — from UK local councils and charities to global technology giants — to serve their own users better, by working with mySociety Commercial Services.
All in all, I am indebted to Tom for leaving mySociety with sound finances and a world-class team of developers, both of which will be invaluable in helping me to take the organisation to the next level over its second decade.
I am also grateful to Tom and mySociety’s trustees for putting their trust in me. I’ve been an admirer of mySociety, and a user of its sites, for many years. It is a great privilege to be appointed as CEO.
I will be spending the next few months with the team as we plot and plan the next phase of our development which you can read more about here on this blog in the coming months. So if any of this sounds interesting to you then please get in touch.
And Tom says…
A big welcome to Mark!
I am excited that someone with so much digital experience has come along to guide mySociety in our second decade. We’ve always been an unusual social enterprise in that while we have a social mission, we also operate a first class software development and design team in-house. With Mark on board we will retain and grow that digital credibility, whilst focusing ever more deeply on the needs of our international partners, our UK clients, and growing our research capacity so that we know what is (and isn’t) working.
I am looking forward to spending the next month brain-dumping to Mark, before I slip quietly out the door in early August.
It’s an exciting time for mySociety, and I hope everyone will join me in celebrating Mark’s arrival!
La Constitución De Todos allows citizens to discuss, vote on and propose changes to each article of the constitution online, using code that originates from Morocco’s Legislation Lab from GovRight.
The launch comes in the context of the new Chilean president announcing that there will be a widespread public consultation on a constitution for the nation.
The two organisations might never have met, if it hadn’t been for the Poplus kick-off conference back in 2014, where the idea was first mooted, and GovRight stepped in to offer help.
The Poplus federation was founded on the idea that sharing civic code and knowledge can benefit organisations worldwide: this project is another superb example of exactly that.
From today, it’s much easier to buy transit-time maps from Mapumental. We’ve added a self-service shop which allows you to generate your own maps, instantly and easily.
The technical amongst you may like to know that the service queries the Mapumental API; for everyone else, it’s probably enough to say that your maps will just appear, as if by magic.
Mapumental maps are cheaper when you buy in bulk, so we’ve also integrated a credits system. If you know you’ll have an ongoing need for our maps, stock up on credits (also completely self-service) and you’ll soon start benefiting from some substantial discounts. We’ve included a nifty little credits calculator on the page, so you can find the price band that best suits your needs.
Check out the new interface at Mapumental now. All the benefits of a self-service checkout, none of those irritating “unexpected item in the bagging area” announcements.