1. Telling stories with FOI data

    In the second seminar of our Using Freedom of Information for Campaigning and Advocacy series, we learned how to use information from FOI requests to create stories and further your cause. 

    First, we heard the experience of two different campaign groups — Privacy International and Climate Emergency UK — in getting their stories into the public eye; this was followed by tips from freelance journalist Rosie Taylor about pitching to newspapers.

    You can watch the whole video over on YouTube, or read the summary below.

    Privacy International

    Ilia Siatitsa

    Privacy international is a UK-based organisation, working with partners around the world to research and advocate against governmental and corporate abuses of data and technology. 

    They’ve used FOI requests as a source of information that feeds into campaigns and advocacy for many years. Sometimes they use a preliminary round of FOI requests to help inform a subsequent, more focused one.

    Their Neighbourhood Watched campaign, which investigated the use of new surveillance technologies by the UK police, is a good example (we’ve written about it before here). Privacy International submitted fact-finding FOI requests to many police forces across the UK, asking which technologies were being used at a local level for law enforcement.

    The responses enabled them to identify several different types of tech, and that there was a massive regulatory gap around this area of law enforcement, with new, invasive technologies having been introduced before any guidance was put in place.

    The information they obtained via FOI has inspired a number of different actions within a wider, multi-year campaign. Privacy International first rallied their supporters to write to their local Police and Crime Commissioner to ask for more information and better regulation. 

    They later launched a similar campaign around police technologies being used at protests, producing a guide to inform people attending marches, so they knew what tech was being deployed by police, and how to mitigate some of the exposure.

    They also made follow-up FOI requests around the specific technologies that their first round had identified. In this second round of FOI requests, Privacy International found that the responses were all coming back as refusals, using very similar or identical language and stating that the authorities could not confirm or deny that the information was held. 

    Privacy International attempted to challenge these refusals via the ICO, but they were upheld; a subsequent appeal at the Information Rights Tribunal also upheld the decision and denied a request to appeal. Undaunted by this setback, Privacy International have moved back to advocacy, sending letters to police oversight bodies to point out that every other country that has introduced these technologies to their police forces has been more transparent about them. In 2020 they published a report criticising the way the police were using mobile phone extraction (where the contents of your phone are copied, no password required), calling for reform and safeguards.

    So, while Privacy International haven’t yet won the battle, they continue to fight — and this is a good example of how FOI can form the basis of a multi-year campaign with many outputs, audiences and facets.

    Here are Ilia’s top tips for submitting requests — also make sure you see our previous seminar, Getting the most from FOI, for lots more advice.

    Top tips for FOI requests from Privacy International

    Questions from the audience:

    Q: Can you make a rejection into the story?
    A: You can, but it depends how you want to play it: you might decide that you don’t want the refusal decision to be out in public, setting a precedent for how authorities reply to responses. Privacy International are also trying a new approach, sending a different set of questions to see if that gets them better results. 

    Q: One of your tips is “format matters”: any further advice here?
    A: Authorities might try to give the least information possible, using the way you’ve formatted your question to minimise what they share, so look carefully at how you’ve worded your request before sending it, and consider how it might be responded to with this mindset. 

    It can be very useful to use a yes/no question: this only takes the authority moments to answer. 

    Or, rather than asking for stats, try asking for the documents that those stats can be found within. Responding to this type of request takes less time for the authority, but their response will contain more information. 

    Authorities often come back and say that your request needs to be narrowed down, so that can be a strategy too: start with a broad request which you’ll be happy to whittle down, knowing that you actually want the narrower information.

    Climate Emergency UK

    Isaac Beevor 

    Climate Emergency UK (CE UK) was founded around five years ago, with the aim of collating data and information on UK councils’ climate emergency declarations. Since then they’ve worked with mySociety to create CAPE, which collates all UK councils’ Climate Action Plans, and the Council Climate Action Scorecards, which first assessed all the plans, and subsequently councils’ actual climate action.

    Isaac explained that in order to gather data for the latest iteration of the Scorecards, they’d sent around 4,000 FOI requests to UK local authorities: these were all asking for data which couldn’t be obtained by other means.

    These requests, which were worded very specifically, allowed CE UK to compile data on: 

    • Councils’ staffing levels for climate and implementing Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG);
    • The average energy efficiency (EPC) ratings of council homes and the enforcement of the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES);
    • Whether councillors and management were receiving carbon literacy training;
    • Whether the councils were lobbying their devolved national government, or the UK government, for further powers or funding.

    As well as giving vital information that fed into the Scorecards project, the request about EPC ratings resulted in an exclusive [paywalled] on page two of the Financial Times.

    Isaac shared how CE UK went about achieving this coverage, noting that any organisation could do the same: they are a small and relatively new charity, but followed some logical steps to pitch their story, and it paid off. 

    First of all, they identified three potential stories, analysing the data they’d received and looked for trends within it to see what stood out the most. They wrote the headline for each, to make it easy for a journalist to imagine the piece and the way the data could be framed. 

    CE UK also considered the stories’ relevance to what was in the news at the time. The cost of living crisis was very much in the zeitgeist, and that tied in well with their data around low energy efficiency standards in council housing.

    They identified which newspaper they wanted to target, and found a suitable journalist to approach, and then simply emailed them with both the headlines and the detail to back them up. Isaac advises that it is reasonable to pitch a few potential stories at one time, especially if you have such rich data that you can pull several angles out of it. 

    Finally, Isaac advises that having given your framing to the journalist, you must allow them the freedom to emphasise whichever parts of the story they want to, based on your clear explanation of the data and what it is saying.

    Questions from the audience:

    Q: Did CE UK use EIR (Environmental Information Regulations) requests? 

    A: The requests were sent with a note that the authorities should feel free to treat them as either EIR or FOI requests. In these cases, the responses would be much the same so the distinction wasn’t a great concern for CE UK.

    Q: How can one identify the right journalist to approach? 

    A: CE UK were guided by where they wanted the story to go, based on the reputation of the paper. Ideally you can then identify a journalist who has an interest in your subject matter. Clearly they won’t know your data as well as you do, so make sure they understand the context — be really clear in explaining what your data is about. And it’s fine to pitch to more than one journalist: give them a deadline to respond by and if they don’t, move on to another.

    Q: If the paper has a paywall how do you ensure as many people as possible see the story? 

    A: As well as the FT exclusive, which gave that paper the ability to print first, CE UK later sent a press release round to more general and sector press. This was also picked up by many.

    Rosie Taylor, freelance journalist

    Rosie specialises in health and consumer affairs, writing news and features across all national press, and she often uses FOI in work. She also works with organisations to improve their media coverage. 

    Rosie began by listing five key things to consider when pitching a story to the newspapers:

    1. Relevance Your story needs to be relevant to that publication’s readers. All publications have slightly different audiences with unique interests and concerns.
    2. Timeliness Can you hook into topics that are being talked a lot at the moment in the news? Make sure the journalist knows ‘why now?’.
    3. Ease How easy are you making it for the editor to say yes? Overworked journalists don’t have time to build up a story, so ideally you should provide a complete package. If you’re giving them data, it’s all the better if you can give them the top line but also attach the datasets. Line up experts, provide case studies and pictures — it all really helps. Look at what a finished article looks like on the page: that is everything you’re going to need.
    4. Targeting Make sure you’re sending your pitch to the right journalist in the right section of the right publication. Read the publication yourself and look at the stories; become familiar with which journalists are covering certain topics.
    5. Timing Pitch plenty of time ahead of when you want the story to be published, to allow time for the journalist to write it.

    When considering which news outlet you are targeting, you need to look at your ultimate aim: for example, the Financial Times is read by changemakers, so it fits the needs of many campaign or advocacy groups well. Perhaps you just want more people to know about your organisation, in which case a mass readership publication would suit you better.

    We tend to think of each newspaper as a single entity but in fact they can contain different sections, each with their own editor and journalists, and slightly different  interests, audiences and timescales.

    It pays to know which section you are targeting, and what you want it to look like on the page. Will the story be a few paragraphs or are you hoping for a double page spread?

    You might pitch your story to local papers rather than a national. In fact, many of these are syndicated across the whole country, so you can still effectively attain national coverage that way.

    If you are pitching to a daily newspaper with a Sunday edition: is it a seven-day operation, or are they two separate papers? For example, you shouldn’t pitch the Times and the Sunday Times simultaneously, as they run autonomously, while the Telegraph just runs seven days a week.

    Similarly, some papers have a different team producing online content, like the Daily Mail newspaper and Mail Online.

    Don’t feel that you have to write off a whole publication just because you’ve had a ‘no’ from one section – if the Sunday paper says no, you can still pitch the dailies; if the Health section says ‘no’, you can try another section.

    There are two ways of pitching: ‘all round’, which goes to several papers at once, or as an exclusive.

    All-rounds

    If you are sending your story to multiple outlets at the same time, always put an embargo on the press release (a date and time after which it can be published). This ensures that you have control over the moment of release, and journalists welcome it as it gives them the time to write the story up.

    Make your embargo clear: you can put it in big red capital letters, add it to the email title, et cetera. The general convention for print is an embargo of 00:01 (one minute past midnight) for the story to appear in the following day’s papers.

    Online outlets really like embargos in the middle of the day (but that timing is a nightmare for print, so pick one). For broadcast, you can time the embargo to their news bulletins.

    Make sure you’re available in the run-up to the embargo, including having your experts or case studies at hand, in case there are any extra questions. If you have embargoed the story for a Monday release, that means being available on the Sunday.

    An all-round is always a gamble, because it can be scuppered by a bigger news story arising; with an exclusive you can discuss timing with your journalist and they might have the flexibility to put it out at a later date if that is still appropriate. 

    Exclusives

    With an exclusive, you can work with one publication and focus on getting quality coverage. You can still set an embargo if the timing is important to you; you can also do a joint exclusive for print and broadcast, so long as you are transparent with all parties.

    As Isaac mentioned, if one paper declines your story, take it to another — you can pretend you’re still offering it to them first!

    Be very clear that you’re offering your story as an exclusive. Explain why it is relevant to them, their readers, and is timely. You should do this further ahead of time than with an all-round, especially bearing in mind that you may have to pitch to more than one outlet; also, they might want to examine your data and go into the story more deeply.

    As soon as your exclusive story has been published, you can send to all the other press and see if any of them pick it up — so an exclusive doesn’t tie your story to a single paper for good.

    Timing

    While Rosie says one shouldn’t be too hung up on timing — it is much more important to have a strong story — it does help to know the cycles to which newspapers work. 

    Sunday papers have a day off on a Monday; pool ideas on Tuesdays and most of the content has been written by the Thursday. Pitch a few weeks ahead.

    Daily papers work to rough weekly cycles. They have more space on Saturdays, when they like lighter stories with good human interest; while the Monday edition is smaller but also the most serious – a good time for dryer, data-driven stories.

    On Sundays, daily papers tend to have a skeleton staff, so they might be grateful of a fully-worked story. Pitch on the Wednesday of the previous week, with an embargo for Monday morning, and your story will be worked on by the Sunday staff who will be glad to have something easy to include.

    Supplements and weekly sections within daily papers all have their own cycles, so just pitch a couple of weeks ahead of when you need to run.

    Questions from the audience

    Q: Is it better to pitch to a freelancer like Rosie, or directly to a paper?

    A: There are plusses to both, but Rosie says there are several benefits to pitching to a freelancer: they can pitch to multiple publications, know all the editors and know instinctively which would be the best fit. Plus they have an incentive to get your story published, because they are paid on publication.

    On the other hand, staff journalists have more weight with the papers, so it’s easier for them to get stories in.

    Q: Is it best to phone or email?

    A: Don’t ever phone. The journalist will see your email – but they do get a lot, so you need to make sure it is eye-catching. If you are offering an exclusive, make it very clear that this is a personal email intended for its recipient, not a generic one.

    Q: What sort of case studies could we be providing?

    A: Even if your story is just based on data, there will still be a human impact in the story. For example, looking at the energy standards story, you could find someone who lives in an energy inefficient home or who hasn’t got money for their bills.

    Q: How do big investigations get funded? 

    A: Most are funded in-house, and developed internally. You might find yourself working with the newspaper’s own team. Complex stories take time, so you need a newspaper on board to pay for your time and any equipment you need. Sometimes, organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism apply for grants to help them with in-depth stories.

  2. Getting the most from FOI

    We are currently running a series of free, online seminars on Using Freedom of Information for Campaigning and Advocacy

    The aim is to upskill social change organisations, particularly those working with marginalised communities and with limited capacity. Attendees will come away from these sessions with the skills and understanding they need to support their campaign or advocacy work through FOI — and, by sharing the videos, we hope that the benefits will spread further, too.

    The first seminar in the series was on Getting the Most From FOI

    Jen, mySociety’s Projects and Partnerships Manager, gave practical advice on how to shape FOI requests to maximise the chances of a full response; what the outcomes of a request might be; and how to deal with each of those outcomes.

    You can watch the video here. We’ll also summarise the advice below. 

     

    Framing and wording FOI requests

    The more thought you put into your request before submitting it, the better the outcomes are likely to be.

    Plan for your desired results

    Start by thinking about what you’re going to be using the information for. 

    • What are you trying to do with it? 
    • So what information do you need?
    • How are you going to use it? 

    For example, you might need the information to feed into some research, in which case you could request base level statistics. Or you might be looking for a big headline number to shape your request around, in which case you can make a single, very tightly defined request.

    Asking the right place for the right information

    Consider what information is actually recorded. You can only ask an authority for information they already hold — but that doesn’t necessarily just mean documents. Videos, photos, recordings, WhatsApp messages, etc all count as information, and can all be requested.

    Once you’ve narrowed down what you need, identify which authority holds the information. It’s worth doing some research here, as it might not always be the one you first think of.

    Keep your request well-defined 

    Consider how you word your request. If an authority has to come back and ask for further clarification, this resets the clock on the 20 working days within which they have to respond  — and it won’t begin until they’ve received your clarification. So it’s good to try and pre-empt the problems that might cause delay or rejections of your FOI request.

    Don’t be afraid to be very detailed: it’s better than missing something out. You can even include what you’re not interested in, to help narrow the request down.

    What time period do you want information from? State this, because otherwise the authority might assume you mean for all time, in which case it could be rejected as being too big a task and therefore taking too much staff time to compile. 

    Make sure you are extremely precise. For example, when you refer to “a year”, that might be interpreted as a calendar year, financial year, or school year, so specify which you mean.

    If there’s anything you already know about the information — like how the types of record you want are generally named, or where they might be found — add those details to your request. You can even send an initial FOI request to ask how the information is held at that authority, which can inform your main request.

    Make sure you’re asking for something the FOI officer can easily search for. As an example, asking for data about the ‘local area’ is too vague a term. So if you want information for a particular place, specify what you mean by providing the postcode, road names or the distance from a specific point.

    Doing this sort of preparation work is definitely worthwhile, especially in fast moving campaigns, as a clarification will cost you another 20 working days — ie four whole weeks.

    How to make a request on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Jen made a request during the seminar which you can watch step by step from the timestamp 25:52 to 37:39.

    Possible outcomes to FOI requests

    Once you’ve made your request, as noted, the authority has 20 working days within which they must respond. 

    If there is no response:

    • Nudge the authority to remind them about your FOI request – you can do this through WhatDoTheyKnow just by adding to the thread on your request page.
    • If after a few days there is still no reply, you can report the matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office (the ICO) – more on this shortly.
    • If you decide you no longer need the information, and there’s no benefit to it being made public, you can (and should) withdraw your request.

    If you get a response:

    • Legally the authority must confirm or deny whether they hold the information (or tell you that they “neither confirm nor deny”).
    • In the best case scenario, the information you’ve asked for is released with no other issues.
    • As mentioned above, the authority might ask you for a clarification, because they need to understand your request better.
    • They might say they’re performing a Public Interest test (more on this below). There’s no legal time limit within which this must happen, though guidance from the ICO suggests it should be completed within 20 days.
    • Your request might be rejected. Again, more on this below.

    The Public Interest test

    The Public Interest test weighs the benefits to society of releasing the information against the arguments against releasing the information.

    When an authority rejects a request, it has to be because of one of several set reasons (called ‘exemptions’). Some of these exemptions require them to hold the public interest test before they can be applied.

    Other exemptions are absolute, that is they can be applied with no Public Interest test. The most common of these are:

    • Section 21 — the information is already in the public domain
    • Section 12 — the cost limit has been exceeded, ie it will take too much time or be too costly to fulfil your request.

    Some authorities include details of how they’ve applied the Public Interest test, and how they reached their conclusion, as part of a reply.

    Possible rejection responses

    A rejection to an FOI request may take one of several forms.

    • Information not held: the authority is saying that they don’t have the information you’re asking for. 
      • If you think that’s not right, resubmit your request after doing a bit more research. Include any evidence that supports your belief that they do have the information. It might simply be a matter of wording your request less ambiguously so that they know what you’re talking about.
      • You might ask for an internal review: this means requesting that the authority’s FOI team look at the decision making process applied to your request, and reconsider whether it was valid. This can be easily done via WhatDoTheyKnow: it guides you through the steps. And it’s worth doing: our research shows that, for example, 50% of refusals from local councils get overturned at the review stage. We recommend saying why you think an internal review should be performed (and in Scotland you must). 

    • You can ask the FOI team to pass your request along to the right place, or tell you who might hold the information so you can send it there.
    • The information is held, but your request has been rejected: If they are declining to provide the information you’ve asked for, the authority must explain which exemption — ie, authorised reason for rejection — it is applying (see below).
      • As above, if you don’t agree with their decision, you can ask for internal review, including your reasoning.

    Possible outcomes of an internal review

    After the internal review, there will be one of the following outcomes:

    • The exemption is overturned, and the information you asked for is released
    • The exemption is partially overturned, and some of the information is released
    • The exemption is upheld, and no information is released

    Possible reasons for rejection (exemptions)

    Understanding all the various exemptions that can be applied to an FOI request requires time and effort — but if you receive a refusal and you’re not sure what the exemption means, you can always ask the WhatDoTheyKnow team for help.

    All the FOI exemptions

    Jen mentioned a couple of the most common exemptions we see being applied:

    • Section 14: Vexatious or repeated requests. If you submit a lot of requests to the same authority within a short time frame, they might be seen as unreasonable (vexatious) — or they can be considered together by the authority, and then might hit the cost limit.
    • Section 8: Asking you to provide more information about yourself: for example, if you’ve made a request under the name of your organisation, the authority might ask you to provide a person’s name instead. Bear in mind that you don’t have to use your full name: you can use an initial and last name, or just your title and surname, etc.

    Prejudice test

    Exemptions can be ‘absolute’ or ‘qualified’ exemptions. If they are absolute, then there’s no further action necessary from the authority. For some qualified exemptions, however, they must carry out a prejudice test.

    This tests whether it can be demonstrated that there is a causal link between releasing the information you’re asking for, and harm arising.

    Scotland

    In Scotland, they have their own points of law around FOI, and they have their own Information Commissioner.

    Scottish law around FOI is covered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s Help page here

    If the authority still rejects your request after an internal review

    If you have been through the process of having your request refused, requesting an internal review and still receiving a refusal, you may wish to continue to pursue the information — especially if it’s valuable to your work and you disagree with the grounds on which the rejection has been made; or you feel there’s a strong case for the information to be in public.

    At this point you can take the matter to the ICO: fill in a form on their site or send an email to their review address (ICOCasework@ico.org.uk). Include your arguments as to why the information should be released.

    Before you do so, it’s a good idea to read and follow the ICO guidance. There’s a help page on WhatDoTheyKnow as well.

    The possible outcomes here are:

    • The ICO rules in your favour and will tell the authority to release the information. If they don’t comply they may be in contempt of court.
    • The ICO rules in favour of the authority’s non-release. This does not have to be the end of the matter; if really determined, you can go to tribunal and set out why you disagree with ICO’s decision. If you get to this stage, please do get in touch with the WhatDoTheyKnow team who can give help and advice.

    Image: Desola Lanre-Ologun

  3. Gaza Ceasefire votes and voting records

    What happened?

    Yesterday in the House of Commons, there was an SNP Opposition Day debate about a ceasefire in Gaza. This meant that the SNP had an opportunity to put forward a motion for the House to vote on.

    The Labour Party’s preferred wording of a ceasefire motion replaced the SNP motion and was passed by the House of Commons based on what is known as a voice vote. 

    This is when the speaker (in this case the Deputy Speaker who was in the chair) judges the result of the vote based on the volume of shouts in the chamber. As such, there is no record of how individual MPs voted.

    This is not the same as saying the vote was unanimous – and listening to the recordings there is a clear ‘no’ present on both votes (the Deputy Speaker does later claim that “nobody called against it”, which is then contested).

    From the Speaker’s point of view, the goal is taking a read on the decision of the House (and this may have been correct in that one side was louder, if not unopposed) – and a vote in the lobbies (division), which takes around 15 minutes, serves no purpose. 

    But votes also serve the purpose of putting the opinions of individual MPs on the record, which several were frustrated to have been denied. Votes are part of the public facts about MPs’ impact in Parliament, and part of how actions are communicated to constituents. This is a factor in the democratic process that also needs balancing in these decisions. 

    This decision followed a long division for a motion to sit in private – and votes that seemed clear on a voice vote may have been seen as costly in terms of time to take to a full division. In general, it is possible to have voting processes that are much faster and fairer to MPs, that would allow getting two votes on the record without taking most of an hour of parliamentary time. 

    What does this mean for TheyWorkForYou?

    Because there was no recorded division – the approval of the motion does not appear in the recent votes tab for MPs.

    The full debate is worth a read – the general sense is of a long debate where MPs engage with a complicated situation, and reflect that the UK’s role can only be part of any solution. 

    We’re in the process of updating the processes behind our voting summaries, which includes ways to include what we’re calling “agreements” (decisions without a “division”) in summaries. But issues like last night’s decision reflect that we need to take a cautionary approach – as there is clear evidence that it was not an unambiguous decision. We will publish more on this approach soon.

    Why was the amendment process controversial?

    As it was an SNP Opposition day, (a day when an Opposition party gets to choose the main debate) they got to propose the motion. Both Labour (another Opposition party) and the Conservative Party (Government party) proposed amendments to the motion.

    The Speaker went against previous convention and allowed both a Government and Opposition amendment – which was unexpected. The motivation of this was to give most MPs a chance to vote for a motion on their preferred wording – the problem is that the amendment process is not really set up for this.

    The thinking makes sense given how Opposition day voting is supposed to work: the Opposition by definition is not supposed to win because they have fewer MPs than the government.

    What’s supposed to happen is that MPs debate a topic, hold a vote, and the motion is rejected. If the topic strikes closer to home, the Government will amend it to say “this is an important issue but the Government is doing a great job”, and that is the motion that is passed because the Government should have the numbers to win the vote.

    Government amendments come after the vote on the main motion to respect the purpose of Opposition day debates, while reflecting the reality that the government can amend the motion and win. This sequencing allows for a vote on the pure motion on the record before the amended one wins.

    The same applies for amendments from other parties or backbenchers in the Opposition – these votes should also lose, and can be put before the motion without disrupting the flow.

    So what could have happened is: Labour amendment rejected (mostly by Government MPs), SNP motion rejected (mostly by Government MPs), Conservative amendment approved and adopted (mostly by Government MPs). In this scenario, most MPs have had a chance to vote for their party’s preferred wording, but this is only possible because the first few votes are rejected.

    In practice what seems to have fallen apart is the government approach – exactly why is still unclear but one suggestion is not enough Government MPs wanted to vote against the Labour wording, so to avoid an internal conflict they pulled their amendment and stopped opposing other votes. 

    This meant that Labour’s amendment won, it replaced the SNP motion and was passed as the main motion. 

    This outcome was the opposite of the one the Speaker’s choice was intended to facilitate. The SNP (and anyone who preferred the contents of their motion) didn’t get the chance to vote on their version, and no one generated a voting record either. A ceasefire motion passed, but no individual votes were recorded for it.

    The role of the Speaker

    The core issue is different ideas of what the Speaker is supposed to do. 

    In one reading the Speaker is supposed to be an agent to draw out the collective will of MPs, in another, the emphasis is on being non-partisan and reflecting a settled (cross-party) view of how the House of Commons operates. 

    The Clerk of the House advised not to allow both amendments, but also said that this was allowed by the rules, it went against previous approaches and risked that the SNP motion wouldn’t be voted on. The Speaker didn’t do anything inherently wrong by the rulebook, but has upset the sense that he was supposed to be a speaker who “innovated” less than his predecessor John Bercow.

    The virtue of deferring to the dead hand of precedent is that it shields the Speaker from the accusations of political bias. The outcome of this decision was good for Labour in that it avoided a split over the SNP vote, leading to a perception the rules were being bent in Labour’s favour. If this had threaded the needle and everyone had got the votes they wanted, this might have paid off. As it is, there’s a big question mark over whether the Speaker is trusted by MPs to be fulfilling the role. 

    The argument made by Owen Thompson (SNP) was that “the purpose of an Opposition day is for our party to have the ability to put forward our business”.  In general, Labour has a lot more Opposition days, where they haven’t chosen to propose their version of the motion. One of the SNP’s few days has resulted in SNP MPs not being able to put their views on the record. 

    But also if a motion would be preferred by the House it doesn’t seem undemocratic to include it. The amendment process is not meant to allow voicing opinions on three different things – but working towards a single statement that has majority support. If including more amendments changes the outcome, it is reasonable to include them on this basis. 

    This gets at different ideas of what voting in Parliament is for – is it for Parliament to come together and agree a consensus view, or for political actors to signal their divergent views? Both of these are legitimate purposes for a political body – especially when the goal of the motion is signally internationally (and also domestically) what the UK political establishment’s views are. 

    What does this mean for foreign policy?

    There’s a view that this kind of vote is navel gazing – and what MPs yell about over here doesn’t affect things over there. But this view is too narrow and misunderstands Parliament’s role as a political institution and how that relates to international politics.

    Motions can be broadly “doing something” or “saying something” motions, and this was a “saying something” motion. It doesn’t commit the government to do anything, and if it did, the government doesn’t have the power to impose a ceasefire tomorrow.

    In practical terms, it doesn’t matter what the Opposition thinks except in terms of the approach it signals in a possible next government. It does matter what government MPs are thinking however, and these motions seem to have flushed out some fault lines within the Conservative Party. Even if this isn’t on the voting record, it shapes internal discussion and policy making. 

    It is broadly good for the long term project of British diplomacy and coalitions with other countries where there is widespread consensus in Parliament on an action. Even partial support for bigger approaches within the governing party gives the Foreign Secretary more flexibility, and alignment with the likely next party of government similarly empowers the kind of statements and alliances that can be made. 

    So the vote does nothing in itself, but helps reveal what the political lie of the land actually is, and empowers actors working within it. Just because something is partial and political doesn’t mean it’s pointless.

    Political violence is shaping how representatives behave

    Another running thread here is the idea of political violence impacting decisions on the parliamentary agenda. The Speaker explicitly said the decisions he made on amendments were based on conversations “about the security of Members, their families and the people involved” – where MPs were considering their personal safety in weighing up if they could oppose motions by other parties. Regardless of whether you think it would be fine if more MPs had supported the SNP motion, it’s not good that this is part of the thinking in either direction. 

    This is part of a wider problem where political violence and threats of violence are collapsing political trust and openness – making politicians more suspicious of each other (seeing each other as whipping up mobs rather than engaging in politics), and less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to what may be passionate but legitimate participation of citizens in politics. 

    The parliamentary rulebook cannot take the weight of this – there are arguments about the extent to which allowing individual expression is an important purpose, but it can’t take the weight of allowing individual expression for the purposes of safety. 

    Here is where the recent Jo Cox Foundation report  No place in politics: tackling abuse and intimidation gives constructive steps. A key argument in the JCF report is that proportionate reactions to political violence can damage the relationship between representatives and their constituents. More safety measures and less public visibility make representatives less accessible. Its impact is not just in the one act, but the chilling effect it extends through the whole system that makes us more distant and suspicious of each other. 

    Reflecting this, the report puts a lot of time into a series of very practical measures to improve policing and reporting of threats and abuse, tying together different systems of support across Parliament, parties and policing. The clearest way to take abuse and intimidation seriously is to join up support and action on the least ambiguous cases. Politicians feeling that they are safe, and that threats against them are taken seriously, helps an environment where trust and openness support a better democratic system.

    Photo: UK Parliament – Central Lobby 

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

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

    The times boundaries, they are a’changing

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

    So, who goes where?

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

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

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

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

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

    What does that mean for our data?

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

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

    What can we say about how these constituencies will change?

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

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

    You can also dig into the new constituencies data yourself.

    Thoughts?

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

    Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For individuals

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

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

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

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

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

    Screenshot of the map page from Local Intelligence Hub

    For campaigning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  6. Democracy month notes – January

    What are month notes?

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

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

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

    What is “democracy” at mySociety?

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

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

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

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

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

    All the conferences

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

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

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

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

    Register of interests

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

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

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

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

    Voting records

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

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

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

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

    TICTeC/PMO Communities of Practice

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

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

    New combined authority

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

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

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

    Making progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Call for Proposals: open until 22nd March 2024

    Core themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Register now

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

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

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


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

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

    We look forward to welcoming you to TICTeC 2024!

     

  8. Statement from mySociety regarding misuse of FixMyStreet data

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

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

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

     

    Why FixMyStreet data cannot be used to fairly compare areas

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

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

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

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

     

    Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

  9. Foodbanks and TheyWorkForYou alerts

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

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

    Find a foodbank near you

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

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

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

    Turning alert emails into action

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Open source code

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Image: FeydHuxtable (CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  10. Improving the register of MPs interests

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

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

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

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



    Building a data ecosystem

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

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

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

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

    Making our data more accessible

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Parliament can do better data publication

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

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

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

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

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

    What mySociety can do

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

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

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

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

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





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    Image: Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash.