Have you ever typed a phrase like ‘what’s the time in New York’ or ‘what is 28 km in miles’ into Google? If you’ve done so in the last couple of years, you’ll have seen answers given on the results page itself, inside dedicated answer boxes.
We’re delighted to share the news that these answers are being supplied as open standard data from Democracy Club’s brilliant, volunteer-powered YourNextMP project, as well as our own long running TheyWorkForYou. The aim is to make information easily accessible to anyone who seeks it: we are one of a few data sources to be supplying Google.
We think that adoption of open standards data by companies as big as Google points towards a promising world in which there is a lot more good quality, open standard data on political issues of all kinds.
How was this made possible?
We’re so delighted to see essential civic data being brought to the search engine’s vast numbers of users. It’s all down to the power of open standards and re-usable open source software.
YourNextMP provides feeds via an API, which are available for anyone—large organisations like Google, or individual people like you, perhaps—to use in their own projects.
YourNextMP’s use of the Popolo open standard for government means that the data is clean, machine-readable and easy to slot in anywhere—including Google.
We think a few shout-outs are due. This simple but far-reaching usage of YourNextMP data is only possible because of many good people bringing good things together:
- Democracy Club, and the huge amount of work that this volunteer-run organisation put in to gather and check candidate data
- The many volunteers who gave their time in adding and refining that data
- Popolo, driven by the work of James McKinney
- Poplus, because YourNextMP is based on the people-and-positions storing Component, PopIt
- Google.org, whose funding allowed the creation of Poplus in the first place.
What YourNextMP has achieved
Just as was hoped, YourNextMP data has been used to underpin a variety of projects by many individuals and organisations.
Google may be the latest and the biggest, but we’re no less pleased to see how it has made possible numerous tools to educate or inform the public before the election, as well as powering stories and infographics in several national newspapers. See our previous post for more details on this.
And there’s more. YourNextMP, because it’s built on Open Source code, won’t be going into hibernation until the next election in this country.
The UK voting may be over on May 8, but there are elections all over the world still to come. Our friends in Latin America will be taking the code and adapting it for use in Argentina whose election process starts in August. ¡Viva YourNextMP!
If you have a persistent problem with dog mess on your street, you might like to download this new poster from FixMyStreet and put it in your window—or even print out a few for your neighbours, too.
Doggy mess is just one of the common street problems you can report on FixMyStreet, and this encourages residents to do just that.
We hope you like this cheeky poop and his impassioned message. It’s the latest in a series of downloadable print-out materials from FixMyStreet: see the rest here.
Back in December, we told you about a project to collect the details of every election candidate in the UK— YourNextMP.com.
YourNextMP isn’t a mySociety project. It falls under the wide umbrella of Democracy Club, a loose confederation of volunteers doing interesting digital things, with the overarching aim of helping people be more informed before the election. We have, however, been lending our technical skills.
That database now contains details of every candidate and we’re really glad to see that many projects have been built on the back of it, from national newspaper visualisations to voter advice applications to single-issue sites and more.
Back in December, YourNextMP was a tool for crowd-sourced data-gathering. As well as providing free, open source data via its API, it has now matured into a useful static site in its own right. In a neat virtuous circle, it not only shows you who your candidates are, but also displays feeds from many of the sites using its own data.
What does that mean? Go and input your postcode and you’ll find not only:
- A list showing every prospective parliamentary candidate standing in your constituency, and including links to their Twitter stream, Facebook page, homepage and Wikipedia entry, where possible —
- Pictures of leaflets which have been delivered to residents in your constituency — from ElectionLeaflets.org, another crowdsourced project which is creating an archive of leaflets from all over the country, to stand as a permanent record of promises made pre-election
- Details of where you can go and see your candidates speak — from MeetYourNextMP.com, which crowdsources details of hustings in each area
- CVs from your local candidates — from Democracy Club’s CVs project
- News stories which mention your constituency or candidates — from electionmentions.com.
In many cases, these sites are just like YourNextMP: they’re relying on the time and energy of people like you, to add information. They’ve all made it as easy as possible though, so whether you fancy snapping an election leaflet on your phone and uploading it, or asking your candidates to provide a CV, it really does only take a couple of minutes.
You can also still continue to add more data (such as email addresses) to the candidates on YourNextMP, if you have time to contribute, and some basic Googling skills.
Even if you were there, it was impossible to attend every session, so we know you’ll be glad to hear that we captured a lot of it for posterity. You can see the full range of videos, audio interviews, slide decks and more on the TICTeC 2015 page.
Since the conference, we’ve been spending time reviewing how it went, emailing many of the attendees to continue the useful discussions we began on the day, and figuring out how to make next year’s TICTeC even better.
We’ve also set up a TICTeC Google Group as a forum for civic tech research discussions. Do sign up if you would like to join in.
We’ll be putting out a call for speakers for next year’s conference in October, so make sure you are signed up to the Research newsletter if you’d like to be the first to hear about it.
Roll on TICTeC 2016!
A whole lot of facts are going to be bandied about by politicians, between now and the General Election. How do you know which to believe?
Fortunately, there’s an organisation that’s dedicated to checking every statement, so that you can see the bare facts with no added hyperbole.
Our friends at Full Fact are working day and night, scanning mainstream media outlets (radio, television, newspapers) and what is said in Parliament, logging any sightings of claims made by politicians.
Their researchers then provide a professional assessment of each claim, along with a verdict on whether it can be said to be supported by the relevant data, not supported, or whether there’s not enough information to prove it either way.
With a large team consisting of volunteers and experts, such a large number of facts to be checked, plus the likelihood of the same facts being used by different parties in different ways to suit their agenda, it’s essential that Full Fact have systems in place to help them keep track. That’s where mySociety Services stepped in.
We’ve created tools for their volunteers to log sightings of claims and for researchers to link theses claims to the data and provide an expert assessment. That means that when the same issues keep reappearing, Full Fact will know exactly where to look to find the relevant facts.
At the same time we’ve had an opportunity to standardise and improve the organisation’s coding practices, ensuring that as Full Fact grow their own development team they’re able to work without stepping on each other’s toes.
Each of the previous three months has been a record-breaker for FixMyStreet. In January, you made the highest number of reports in the site’s history… until February. And then that record was smashed again in March with over 17,000 reports across the month.
FixMyStreet has been running since 2007, and it’s enjoyed increasing usage over that time, as you’d expect any site to do organically. The performance in the last few months, though—a 30% rise from the year before—has been notable. We reckon it’s been driven by a couple of factors.
At mySociety, we tend not to go for big advertising campaigns (read: we can’t afford them), but you might have noticed that we put quite a bit of effort into spreading the word about FixMyStreet at the beginning of the year.
Everything we did was low-cost and designed to help us promote the site to as many new people as possible:
- We offered a number of downloadable posters and other promotional materials (if you haven’t seen these yet, go and take a look; we think they’re pretty nice)
- We sent our users a stack of branded postcards that they could share with others to let them know about FixMyStreet
- We also contacted a large number of community newsletters and magazines, serving towns, parishes and villages across the country: perhaps you saw us featured in your local publication.
Users from council sites
That all paid off, but there was another source of reports helping us achieve our record figures.
That source was our client councils, who have FixMyStreet as the primary fault-reporting system on their own sites.
Eight UK councils currently have FixMyStreet installed, with every report made on via the system on the council site being published on fixmystreet.com, and vice versa.
Between them they’ve added just over 16,500 reports this year.
Riding the wave
So far this year, we’ve seen an overall average of 16,000+ reports per month, and there have been over 50,000 reports since 2015 began.
Now, let’s hope all those reports get some kind of a response, because as the recent research we collaborated on showed, getting something fixed has the power to turn first-time reporters into conscientious, engaged repeat reporters. And that’s all for the good.
Has he or she reflected your interests? One key way of checking that is to look at their voting record.
We’d like everyone to know exactly how their MP voted over the last parliament, so we’ve made some changes to TheyWorkForYou that make votes easier to understand.
See an example here, or read on to find out how to check your own MP’s voting record.
A complex matter
TheyWorkForYou publishes activity from Parliament each day.
This content includes parliamentary votes, along with the debates that they are part of. But it’s not always obvious to the lay reader exactly what’s being voted on.
Take a look at this debate, for example, on exemptions for smoke-free premises. By the time you’ve waded through the first clause,
“The appropriate national authority may make regulations providing for specified descriptions of premises, or specified areas within specified descriptions of premises, not to be smoke-free despite section 2”
– you may well be lost. And who would blame you?
Making it nice and simple
We don’t think you should have to be an expert to check your own MP’s voting record, and our new pages for each voting stance are here to help.
For some time now we’ve given you summaries of how your MP voted on certain topics, with a link to the votes that helped us understand each MP’s position on that stance.
Now we’ve created a page for each stance, and worded it in plain English so that anyone can understand exactly what it means.
See for yourself
Here’s how to see how your own MP voted (or we should say ‘previous MP’, since until the General Election, no MPs are now in office):
Go to TheyWorkForYou.com and input your postcode on the homepage.
You’ll be taken to the page of your (former) MP. Click on the ‘voting record’ tab.
Choose a topic you’re interested in, and click the ‘Details’ link on the far right.
You’ll see a plain English description of the stance, followed by descriptions of all the votes that were considered to contribute to it.
Want to see the context? Click on ‘show full debate’ and you’ll be taken to the full record of that vote.
Let us know what you think
These pages are still a work in progress, so we’ve included a feedback box at the top of each voting stance page. Do be sure to let us know if there’s anything else you’d like to see on them.
If you have feedback about how your MP has voted, mind you, that’s another matter… one you might want to reflect at the ballot box.
Of course, there are many factors that you’ll consider before you cast your vote in the general election. But we think that one important quality in an MP is that they respond to their constituents.
So you may wish to check your own MP’s performance on the latest WriteToThem responsiveness league table. Just put in your postcode and you can see how they did in 2014.
Where the data comes from
When you send a message to your MP using our site WriteToThem, you’ll receive an automated email two weeks later, asking whether or not you received a response. Every year, we take the data from these surveys and use it to assemble our responsiveness rankings.
You might think that MPs would be doing the best they can this year, in the run-up to the election. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case: overall, responsiveness has fallen a percentage point since last year, with 46% of emails receiving no reply.
You can find all our data and methodology on the league table page.
We know that messages sent to WriteToThem may not reflect all messages sent to an MP; we also know that not every message will require an answer. However, we think that, taken overall, our sample size of over 36,000 interactions can be seen as indicative.
The second international Alaveteli conference
Venue: Impact Hub Next, C/ Alameda 22, Madrid 28014
There’s no other conference like it. If you’re involved with Freedom of Information technologies, you’ll want to be at AlaveteliCon, the only event with a specific focus on FOI in the internet age.
AlaveteliCon brings together civic society organisations and individuals from around the world. All have one thing in common: an interest in online Right To Know tools.
Interested? Keep reading and apply below!
WhatDoTheyKnow, our website for submitting FOI requests, has listed Network Rail for some time—even though it was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act—for reasons which Richard explained in a 2012 blog post.
As of March 24, however, Network Rail, which had previously been handling requests on a voluntary basis (although perhaps without quite as much adherence as we’d prefer) became fully FOI compliant. So, if there’s anything you’ve been bursting to ask them, now is the time.