Back in February 2012, we announced the launch of a new site for Mzalendo, a parliamentary monitoring website for Kenya.
This year, we handed the hosting, development and maintenance of the site over to the Mzalendo team on the ground. We’re delighted that they are in the position to no longer require our help.
Supported by the Indigo Foundation, this was one of mySociety’s first formal partnerships in which we developed a website for an existing organisation — in this case, building on the work of two activists Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga, who had been filling a gap in Kenya’s public provision of parliamentary information by blogging and publishing MPs’ data since 2005.
If it wasn’t for their work, Kenya would be a whole lot less informed about its own parliament: the official government website, for example, only had information about 50% of the nation’s MPs at the time, and the country’s Hansard could only be accessed by request to the Government’s Printer’s Office.
We were able to draw upon our experience with our UK parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou to avoid the common pitfalls in building such projects, and provide useful features such as an online searchable Hansard, responsive design, MP ‘scorecards’ and an easily-updated database for representatives’ details.
During the years of our partnership, Mzalendo kept the site maintained with data and news, while we worked on the development of new features they requested, fixing any bugs that arose, for example when the Kenyan parliament changed their data outputs, and hosting.
But there are plenty of willing and able developers in Kenya, and it became increasingly obvious that funding could be more effectively — and efficiently — routed directly to them rather than to us in the UK.
Like most mySociety code, the Pombola codebase on which Mzalendo was built is open source, so anyone is free to inspect, reuse or just take inspiration from it. The handover should, therefore, be reasonably painless for the new developers.
We wish Mzalendo all the best in their ongoing efforts to keep Kenya informed and politically engaged.
Image by Valentina Storti: a tawny eagle flying over Laikipia District, central Kenya (CC by/2.0)
Friends of the Earth are on a mission to double the number of trees in the UK: we’re sadly lacking on this front compared to our European neighbours, and of course, we’re all well aware of the part that trees play in helping safeguard the climate and encourage wildlife diversity.
As they point out, it’s not all about planting new trees: it’s just as important, and perhaps more economical, to preserve the ones we have. And we were delighted to see that FoE highlight FixMyStreet as a way to do so.
They suggest that you make a report to request a new TPO — Tree Preservation Order. If granted, this will make it a criminal offence to damage or cut down the tree without written consent from the local authority.
Generally, TPOs are used for trees that are providing a particular benefit to the local community (although it is, of course, possible to argue that pretty much every tree is doing this!). FoE guide you through the report-making process in the section of their page titled ‘How to request a TPO’.
As they make clear, not all councils are the same. Categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. So for some, you will find ‘trees’ as a category (and some even mark every tree on the map, making it very easy to pinpoint the one you are referring to). For others, you may have to choose a wider category such as ‘highways’. If all else fails, there’s always the ‘other’ category.
Once you’ve requested your TPO, it might help to get some support from your representatives. We’re glad to see FoE also suggesting the use of WriteToThem to contact local councillors and bring them onside. Maybe even your MP as well?
It might seem like a small thing, but we think if more people requested TPOs up and down the UK, it could make a real difference. So, if there’s a tree you really appreciate in your local area, you know what to do. Fire up FixMyStreet and get requesting!
Image: Bert Sz
If you’ve had a look at our annual report for 2019 you’ll know that we’re a busy bunch at mySociety, keeping lots of useful civic services running and talking about our work on an almost daily basis.
In 2020 we’re going to be doing something a bit different.
You’ll still hear from us regularly through our blogs and research and conference, but we’re going to be talking about one thing above all else – the climate crisis.
We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts. And thanks to your contributions towards the successful crowdfunder for TheyWorkForYou, we’ll be able — along with other much-needed improvements and updates — to help you hold the new parliament to account on how they respond to the climate emergency.
You’ll still hear from us on transparency; we’ll be helping people make the most of WhatDoTheyKnow to request information from public bodies on how they are responding to the crisis, and we’ll be looking at how we might apply our long experience of improving access to public information to similar private sector services in areas like pensions and investments – where divestment from fossil fuels is urgently needed.
When we refer to community, and especially our work with FixMyStreet, we’ll be underlining how important it will be to support local democracy and help create resilient flourishing communities if we’re to mitigate how our changing climate will hit the least well off in society.
One focus, one reason
We are doing this for one simple reason – there really is not a more important issue facing our society today.
We can’t address the climate crisis without also addressing the parallel democratic crisis we face in many countries around the world, where lies, deceit and fake news have become normal paths to power.
We can’t solve issues like climate change without also addressing the lack of equality and fairness in society, where those with the least power and influence will be affected the most.
And we can’t avoid the worst impacts without building and living with strong and resilient communities where every citizen can play their part.
So we’ll be exploring what small role we might be able to play at mySociety — both improving our environmental impacts internally, and examining how we align our current and future work with the need to tackle the climate crisis. And alongside this you’ll still be able to report a pothole on FixMyStreet, or follow your MP on TheyWorkForYou on every other topic beyond the climate as usual.
We’d encourage all our friends and colleagues in civil society, government and the private sector to consider what role they might play themselves both as individuals and through their organisations – and we hope you’ll also share your plans and we can learn more from each other in the year ahead.
Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.
Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?
But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.
Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:
Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.
You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.
What to do
First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.
Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.
Already signed up?
One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.
And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.
Useful for everyone
Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.
It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.
Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities
Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.
If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.
Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.
Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)
When you woke up this morning to check the election results, you may have visited TheyWorkForYou.
And you’d have found it bang up to date, thanks to the new MP data that was added through the night, as the election results came in. More than a fifth of you have a new MP, and whether you voted for them or not we know you’ll want to keep them accountable.
We’ve just now added one final MP — for St Ives, since weather conditions prevented ballot boxes coming over from the Isles of Scilly earlier.
We’ll be helping you hold all MPs, new and returning, to account over the next few years, as we publish their debates and votes, expenses, interests and contact details.
We make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand what’s going on in Parliament, and how you can play a part in your own democracy.
Right now, you can get a headstart:
If you’re a developer, researcher or just a good old data junkie, you might additionally like to:
- Use the API in the knowledge that it’s delivering the current MPs
- Download a spreadsheet of the current MPs
Now we need you to help us
We’re determined to carry on providing these services, but we still need your help to do so.
There are seven days left to run on our crowdfunder. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors, we’ve already raised almost £10,000, for which we are enormously grateful.
But we still need to raise another £15,000 so that we can continue providing these services, as well as adding new features that will improve the site and make Parliament easier for everyone to follow.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)
This a guest blog by Joe Mitchell from Democracy Club, a non-profit whose aim is to create the digital foundations to support everyone’s participation in democratic life.
The TL; DR
Democracy Club has produced an election information widget that you can add to any website. It’s free. It provides candidate and, where we have it, polling location information for any postcode.
Check it out:
As you may be aware, the UK Parliamentary General Election will take place on 12 December.
You may be less aware that no public body takes responsibility for accurate, locally relevant digital information about elections.
Local governments publish election and candidate data as PDFs on their websites (or, in one notorious case, simply printed out and stuck up on the noticeboard outside the council offices).
Polling location information is printed on cards and sent, in theory, to every voter. It sometimes never arrives. And good luck if you live in a house of multiple occupancy, if you struggle to read the print, if you lose it or if you don’t have it with you when you need to refer to it.
Digital technology has massively improved access to information in many other areas of our lives, so a group of volunteer developers and digital types got together to try to apply the approach to elections in the UK.
That group formed Democracy Club, which is now several thousand volunteers and a small core team constantly working to bring together election, candidate and results data. We also work with local government to aggregate local polling location data and make it available online.
The candidate data we produce is published openly and is used by news media, campaign organisations and, ultimately, voters to learn more and participate in the campaigns. The polling location data we produce is available via an API.
Not everyone has the time to develop a stand-alone product with our data. So we produced a polling location finder widget, which has been popular among local newspapers and local councils. Today, we’ve introduced a widget which includes candidates data too. Users pop in their postcode and away they go. They can click through to a candidate’s page on WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk for more information.
The civic need for this information is clear. At the last general election, polling location data was accessed (via our website, The Electoral Commission’s website or via the widget) over 1.8m times at the last general election. Candidates information was accessed over 1m times, but this doesn’t count all the uses powered by a one-off CSV download.
The fact that this information — increasingly critical to our functioning as a democratic society — is managed and produced by a tiny non-profit is not a ringing endorsement of our democratic institutions’ fitness for the 21st century.
Democracy Club is working hard to convince public bodies to take on the basic open data elements of our work: when are elections happening, for which area, who are the candidates, what is their preferred contact method, what were the results, etc. And civic user needs go beyond elections — we can’t get to a world of user-friendly, accessible information about democratic processes until the raw data exists for local democracy too.
But for now, at least there’s a widget.
TheyWorkForYou is currently operating without dedicated funding, and that’s a problem. In order to keep it running for the next twelve months, we’re going to need your help.
That’s why we’ve set up mySociety’s first ever crowdfunder. If you enjoy — or perhaps even rely on — TheyWorkForYou’s services, then please be a hero and pledge to help ensure the site can continue to provide them.
TheyWorkForYou has a simple aim: to make it easier for everyone to understand what happens in Parliament – from a searchable, shareable record of exactly what was said in debates, to how your MP voted. We think that it’s important in a democracy that you should be able to see who your MP is, check what they are saying and how they are voting on your behalf.
Now more than ever, the UK needs clarity over what’s said and done in Parliament. As political activity becomes more complex, and has more effect on all of our lives, TheyWorkForYou’s remit becomes all the more critical.
However, just keeping the site going on a daily basis takes a substantial amount of staff time and expertise, not to mention the costs involved in hosting a heavily-visited website. Taking all that into consideration, it takes a good sum of money just to keep standing still. We’ve worked hard to find the support we need through our usual funding channels, but so far without success.
Then, if we want to do more than just keep TheyWorkForYou in its current state — and we’ve got a long list of much-needed features we’d love to add, many of them suggested by you, our users — we need to reach the full target of £25,000.
How you can help
So if you’re in a position to do so, please put on your democracy superhero cape and donate to help keep TheyWorkForYou running.
And if you’re not, then you can still help by sharing the link to the crowdfunder far and wide. We really appreciate it.
Generally speaking, the sites just work. Sure, there are a bunch of tasks we’re managing on a daily basis behind the scenes, but none of those need bother you, the user. To employ a tired old metaphor, the sites glide swanlike, while under the water there’s some busy paddling to ensure that the latest debates, votes and representatives’ contact details are all present and correct.
During an election, though, that paddling becomes a bit more visible, and some services may be interrupted.
You want to contact your MP? Here’s the thing: officially, you don’t have one at the moment.
Parliament has dissolved. The representatives formerly known as MPs are no longer allowed to refer to themselves as such, and their parliamentary email addresses have been withdrawn.
So when you visit WriteToThem, you’ll see this message where we normally provide the link for writing to your MP:
Note that you can still use WriteToThem to contact all your other representatives, from local councillors to MSPs, Assembly members, MEPs, etc — provided that your issue is relevant to them (you’ll see a short list of the types of issue each representative deals with, on the site).
If you’ve got something to say about the current political situation or a matter that you’d like your MP to vote on, though, you’ll just have to wait. Even if your former MP is standing for re-election, they’re most likely dedicating a lot of their time to canvassing, and of course they won’t be taking any issues into the debating chamber just now because Parliament is not in session.
Where it becomes a little more tricky is if you have a constituency issue you want an MP to help with. Perhaps consider if it’s something your local councillor/s may be able to help with instead — it’s always worth asking them, anyway. If not, and if it’s an urgent matter, it may be worth calling your former MP’s office, as some (especially those standing for re-election) will still be running a bare bones service.
If your issue is not urgent, then wait until a couple of weeks after the election. In particular, if you find yourself with a brand new MP they’ll be finding their feet, setting up staff and office equipment, etc.
You’ll see the word ‘former’ used a lot, if you visit TheyWorkForYou over the next few weeks. For example, the homepage generally has a prominent link to direct you towards your own MP’s page. These days, it looks like this:
And if you do click through to any MP’s page, you’ll see that they now have this below their name:
On the page where we list all MPs, you’ll see this factually accurate message at the top:
If you want a list of who the MPs were, it’s still there, you just have to click the link.
And then there’s one more thing: of course, as there are no debates taking place in Parliament, we’re not sending out Westminster email alerts (you’ll still get those from Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, though).
When will everything be back to normal?
Our friends at Democracy Club collate the election results as they come in, producing data that we can then import. Thanks to them we’re generally able to update TheyWorkForYou pretty much in real time. So, when you wake up in the morning you’ll hopefully be able to:
- Check who your MP is;
- If it’s someone new, sign up for alerts so you get an email when they speak.
For a little while, of course, new MPs will have very little content on their pages: you’ll see a message to say that data will start to appear once they’ve done a bit more.
WriteToThem takes a little longer to get back up to speed: that’s because we need to import all the MPs’ email addresses, and these can take a while to come through. If we’re using an official parliamentary email address, experience shows that they may not even be set up by Parliament for a short while.
So please be patient — as we mentioned earlier, it’s probably best to wait a couple of weeks before contacting your brand new MP in any case.
While mySociety sites are fully operational in the periods between elections, there are other organisations who swing into action and do their best work during this time.
So here are a few things you can do, thanks to those other orgs, while you wait for mySociety’s democracy services to return to normal.
- Visit WhoCanIVoteFor and WhereDoIVote from Democracy Club to discover who your local candidates for the General Election are, what they stand for, and where to find your nearest polling station.
- Upload scans of the political mailouts coming through your door to ElectionLeaflets, and help build a permanent archive of promises that elected representatives can be held to account for further down the line.
- Get the Who Targets Me extension on your browser to see clearly who is behind the political ads you’re being served on Facebook.
And finally: if you have questions about the whole electoral process, read the beginner’s guide to the UK General Elections we put together in 2017. While the names and dates have changed since then, the facts are still the same.
This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.
WriteToThem is a service that assists people in writing to their representatives. Given a postcode, it lists the associated elected representatives at every layer of government and provides a form to write an email to them.
This can also be seen as a bundle of services. The main use of this website is to write to MPs, but this is just under half of messages ever sent (48%), with most messages sent to representatives in devolved or local government. Different services have different profiles of use and so need to have their effect judged separately.
In 2015, the British Election Study asked whether people had contacted a “politician, government or local government official” in the prior 12 months and found that 17% had. Based on this, over 11 million adults wrote to a representative or official that year — and WriteToThem’s 187,000 emails accounted for 1.6% of this. These results also showed that 20% of men had made contact compared to 15% of women, meaning that 57% of those doing the contacting were men. Extending this into a logistic regression shows that older respondents and those with higher levels of education were more likely to contact, with no significant difference for income and ethnicity once age and education were controlled for.
Demographic profile of WriteToThem users
Looking at the profile of people writing to MPs using WriteToThem, there is an uneven use by different demographics. Over all time, 60% of messages sent have been from men and 60% of people writing had written before. Using the index of multiple deprivation, more messages are sent by better off areas, with 55% of messages being sent by the less deprived half of the country, and 7% of messages coming from the most deprived decile (you would expect 10% if this were evenly divided).
There is a clear linear pattern of greater employment and income in an area being associated with a greater amount of messages sent. Most of these gradients are slight, but in aggregate the effect is that WriteToThem reflects existing divisions in participation (although there are no good sources for the demographics of people who write to MPs specifically) .
But is this actually a problem? Should a service be judged for the proportion of existing represented groups making use of it, or what it does for the under-represented groups who do use it? WriteToThem has delivered 73,000 messages to MPs from people in the most deprived IMD decile alone, if this has led to dialogues that resolved issues that would not otherwise have happened, this is a positive regardless of whether the same is also true for more people in the least deprived areas. If WriteToThem lowers the cost of contact by making it easier, then it is unsurprising that many of the people making use of it would have made contact anyway — but also included in that are people who were previously unable to engage in the process.
When we look at the result of the survey asking whether a user of WriteToThem was writing for the first time, we can see that people from the bottom three IMD deciles were statistically more likely to be writing for the first time (this is also true when just looking at people writing to MPs, and when just looking at 2018). While generally the number of people using the site for the first time has decreased over time, this decline is demographically uneven and mostly occurs in less deprived areas.
For the complete time-span of the service, 47% percent of survey respondents in IMD 1 (most deprived) were writing for the first time compared to 38% of IMD 10 (least deprived). Looking at just 2018, this was 48% compared to 35%. While the service as a whole is used more by people in less deprived areas, of those using it in less deprived areas it is successfully facilitating a higher proportion of first time contacts.
The local picture
To return to the idea of bundles, WriteToThem is also quietly solving a much harder problem than contacting MPs. While people generally recognise their MP when prompted with a name, local councillors remain far more anonymous. From 2007 to 2018 WriteToThem has helped constituents send 450,000 emails to their local councillors (42,000 in 2018). This service has an effectively even gender ratio (with a female majority in 2018), with more reports coming from more deprived areas (54% by more deprived half).
If we imagine one of these bundled services being a site named “WriteToYourCouncillor”, it is in many respects a model service, with a user base displaying an even gender ratio, and more likely to be used in deprived areas. That in reality it is one function of a more well-used service in terms of numbers somewhat obscures this.
But while it is good to recognise where services are successfully reaching people we want to reach, it is also important to think about volume and overall impact. One issue with a service used more by men or in better off areas might be if it shapes how resources are deployed or provides a false shape of the views of constituents (and emails received are certainly used by MPs to build a picture). Even a service that adequately represents under-represented groups may be ineffective if it exists in a wider ecosystem that does not.
At the moment, the systematic effect of any bias in WriteToThem outputs is marginal as WriteToThem accounts for a small fraction of parliamentary mail. While the amount of physical mail entering the Houses of Parliament each year has decreased steadily, in 2018 it was still 24 times larger than the number of emails sent to MPs via WriteToThem. The average MP received 94 emails via WriteToThem in 2018; most MPs would receive more than this through other means in a week.
Returning to the British Election Study finding that 57% of contacting in 2015 was done by men, the equivalent figure for WriteToThem as a whole in 2018 was 55%. Being generous and bearing in mind the previous finding that the method used to assign gender from name undercounts women, this could be seen as a marginal improvement on the real world. However, it would be a marginal improvement in a pool that only represents 1.6% of the total amount of number of messages.
Based on the above, we can think about three different kinds of ‘success’ of a civic tech service in serving under-represented groups:
Relative – The service improves under-representation relative to the current standard. e.g. a service where 60% of usage was by men is an improvement over an offline status quo of 70%.
Absolute – The service adequately (or over-) services under-represented communities to what would be expected based on their numbers in the general population.
Systematic – The service successfully services under-represented communities and is successful enough that this redresses issues of representation in competitor services/methods.
Working with these, we could say WriteToThem is a success on a relative level, servicing people in more deprived areas more than they would have been otherwise (larger proportion of first time writers), but not to the proportion of the population these groups represent.
The “WriteToYourCouncillor” part of the bundle is a success on an absolute level, providing a relatively even amount of representation, with a slight weight towards groups who typically make contact less often.
But neither really makes a dent systematically. They may be redressing inequalities of access for individual users (which is good), but cannot significantly adjust inequalities in volume of messages and the corresponding perceptions of problems.
Making a dent in this problem is outside the scope of WriteToThem — and probably should be. While you can imagine a future where WriteToThem continues to lower the barrier to contacting representatives, this is likely to create new users from currently-represented groups for each under-represented person successfully reached. Targeted interventions and partnerships with other organisations can avert this problem in terms of helping individuals make contact about their issues but turning the problem around, this is a platform that is unlikely to provide a balanced view of opinions and priorities of constituents.
If it is a problem that representatives have systematically skewed visions of the problems and views of their constituents, is an email platform that requires citizens rather than representatives to do work the best way to address that? A civic tech solution to this problem might look more like Consul (or similar general participation platform) than WriteToThem – but even explicitly designed online platforms still risk being skewed towards the online and present members of the community. Exploring better forms of local participation is something currently being explored through our Public Square project.
With so very much going on in politics right now, and so many MPs in the spotlight at any given moment, there has been a lot of sharing of TheyWorkForYou’s voting records on social media.
Of course, we’re all for it, if it helps people understand MPs’ voting history and the stances they’ve taken during their careers: we even include little share buttons beneath each voting record section to help you do this.
But as from a couple of weeks ago, you’ll also see a new addition to these sections: we’ve added a link saying ‘please share these voting records responsibly’ — and if you click on it, you’ll see a page setting out lots more information about votes, including the data that feeds the voting information on the site, and what you can — and what you definitely shouldn’t — conclude from it.
What TheyWorkForYou has always tried to do is take the complex, sometimes messy, often arcane and opaque business of Parliament and make it easy for the everyday person to understand, even if they don’t have a degree in Politics or lifelong membership of a political party.
The trouble is, as our users and MPs themselves can be very quick to point out, when you try to simplify a complicated area, some nuance is always lost. There are things everyone should know before they charge onto Twitter or Facebook, hoping to win an argument or denigrate an MP by brandishing their record on foreign policy or social issues. And so we’ve set these points out on one page.
A key question that arises when writing a page like this is: if we can’t present everything (either because the data doesn’t exist, or because including it would complicate the overall picture so much that we would risk losing our aim of making things easy to understand) should we present anything at all?
We ask ourselves this question fairly often, and so far our answer has always been ‘yes’. Please read our page so that you fully understand the reasons behind the decisions we make.
Image: MP speaking at Theresa May’s last Prime Minister’s Questions, 24 July 2019, CC-BY-NC, Copyright UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor.