1. Can a widget save democracy?

    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:

    The backstory

    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.

    Let us know what you think! You’re welcome to hop into the Democracy Club Slack — or reach out via Twitter or email.

    Image: Justgrimes (CC by-sa/2.0)

  2. Can you help TheyWorkForYou survive… and thrive?

    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.

    Donate now

    Why donate?

    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.

    Donate now

  3. Our services during election periods

    If you’re a user of mySociety’s Democracy-focused sites, such as TheyWorkforYou and WriteToThem, you may notice a few changes during the election period.

    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.

    WriteToThem

    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:

    What WriteToThem looks like during an election

    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.

    TheyWorkForYou

    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:

    TheyWorkForYou showing the woird 'former' during an election

    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.

    Meanwhile…

    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.

    Image: Reproduced with the permission of Parliament

  4. Assessing success in Civic Tech: Measures of deprivation and WriteToThem

    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.

    Defining success

    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.

  5. Understanding the votes on TheyWorkForYou

    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.

  6. Working with playbooks

    As we undertake a lot of work based around knowledge-sharing and best practice, we’re looking into the concept of ‘playbooks’ as one proven way to share practical lessons. Our aim is to ensure that none of our learning is lost, and that it is shared with practitioners who face similar challenges in the future in as useful and accessible a way as possible.

    What is a playbook?

    ‘Playbook’ is a word that’s used a lot these days, by tech and management people. They’ve borrowed it from the world of sports, where the idea of a book telling you ‘how to play’ is a more straightforwardly obvious concept.

    If you find this terminology a bit too hipster, though, you can think of them by the less trendy terms of ‘manuals’ or ‘toolkits’ — though a playbook does have the advantage of sounding like a lot more fun than a workbook.

    Whatever the name, what they aim to give you is a collection of repeatable plans and tactics for responding to typical challenges. As such, they can be absolutely invaluable as an internal company tool; and we think they can also help in sharing knowledge between organisations.

    In either case, a well-managed playbook would be easily available to employees, widely used and regularly updated.

    Content

    Playbooks might be for one department (like sales, or design) or for the organisation as a whole. They typically contain several different kinds of content, such as:

    • Plays (or guides), detailing the steps that need to be taken to achieve a goal or cope with a scenario
    • Scenario or problem definitions, describing things that may happen, or go wrong; how they are caused and how they are identified
    • Ingredients: details of the resources needed and the costs associated with them
    • Case studies: Written summaries of real life projects that have come up against scenarios and utilised similar plays or guides to solve them
    • They also usually contain some signposting or navigation method, such as tags or categories — or one of our favourite methods, the questionnaire.

    Questionnaires as a content discovery method

    One great way to ensure that people are seeing the most relevant content in an often hefty playbook is to use a questionnaire that leads the user to the precise content they need at that particular time.

    By answering a series of questions, the visitor can provide some information on their own situation, and in return be delivered the most relevant content.

    For example, Atlassian’s health monitor, part of their playbook, asks you to rate how well you feel your team is doing on certain attributes, such as shared understanding, decision making, and dependencies.

    Once the questionnaire is completed it offers suggested plays and lets you assemble and share your own action plan.

    What goes into a useful playbook?

    Practical advice that is specific to your situation is often the most helpful, and this where playbooks really shine.

    A well thought-out playbook, with a questionnaire that asks the right questions, can make available clearly-defined, tailored content that is domain-specific. This means that the reader doesn’t need to work hard to apply generic advice to their situation, nor untangle clumsy metaphors.

    Playbooks often solve the problem of ‘how do you know what you don’t know?’, with tried and tested solutions to known problems.

    A playbook should be designed with the target audience in mind — and that audience can potentially be a narrow one, operating solely within one domain or department — offering rich advice based on experience. It should empower people to achieve their goals, solve their problems and, ultimately, shape the culture of their organisation.

    A well thought-out playbook will become invaluable to its users, and consequently they will want to keep it up to date and useful.

    For this reason many playbooks have a method of feedback to aid continual improvement, such as rating a page based on its utility, open feedback methods or collaborative wiki-style editing.

    Where we’re working with playbooks 

    Local Digital FOI

    One of the prototypes we pursued as a result of our research into how councils manage Freedom of Information requests was a playbook, fronted by a self assessment questionnaire.

    We identified a need where teams want to improve their service but don’t necessarily know where to make improvements (eg, should they invest in better software, train staff, or revamp their processes?).

    Our prototype playbook asked questions to determine the shape of the council’s FOI service, which then presented guides and descriptions of potential problems relevant to their case.

    We’re looking at developing this idea further in a future project. If you work in a local authority, and are interested in partnering with other local authorities in a Local Digital funded project to develop this prototype into a resource that could be used across the sector to improve services… please do get in touch!

    Public Square

    Our Public Square work focuses on citizen engagement in local democracy, and we think a playbook could form a key part of this project.

    We’re planning a series of guides, case studies and research presented in a clear and accessible playbook format, to be used by councils and other public sector organisations where greater citizen involvement in decision making is a goal.

    Our favourite playbooks

    There are hundreds of great examples, but here are the ones we’ve singled out as particularly strong:

    If you’ve been working on a playbook, or your organisation already has one that you think is doing interesting things, please do let us know.


    Image: Playability.de (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  7. Digital tools for Citizens’ Assemblies

    As part of the recent work we’ve been doing around meaningful citizen participation in democratic decision making, mySociety have been investigating how digital tools can be used as part of the process of a Citizens’ Assembly.

    We reviewed how Citizens’ Assemblies to date have used digital technology, and explored where lessons can be learned from other deliberative or consultative activities.

    While there is no unified digital service for Citizens’ Assemblies, there are a number of different, individual tools that can be used to enhance the process — and most of these are generic and well-tested products and services. We also tried to identify where innovative tools could be put to new uses, while always bearing in mind the core importance of the in-person deliberative nature of assemblies.

    We found that digital tools have potential uses in many parts of the process, which we grouped in three areas:

    Preparation: bringing the public in 

    • Question forming
    • Public submissions
    • Finding experts and stakeholders to give evidence

    Internal: facilitating assemblies

    • Attendance management
    • Tools for coming to decisions in the assembly (voting)
    • Sharing assembly materials to members
    • Including a wider range of experts
    • Enabling online deliberation for assembly members outside the face-to-face sessions

    External: sharing products

    • Sharing the conclusions of the assembly
    • Streaming of evidence/plenary sessions
    • Sharing evidence submitted to inquiry
    • Tracking implementation of recommendations
    • Communicating participants’ experiences
    • Allowing feedback from non-participants on the outcome

    Above all when considering the use of digital tools, it’s important that the final choice is appropriate to the aims of the project — and will typically be complementary rather than taking a centre-stage role. Digital tools can reduce costs and enhance the process by creating resources that add greater depth and knowledge to the process, but shouldn’t detract focus from the importance of the core deliberative activity of the assembly. 

    The document can be downloaded as a PDF, but we’d also like to be able to respond to feedback and update as time goes on, so the document is also available as a Google Doc open for comments

    This work was supported by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and by Luminate, through the Public Square programme. 

  8. Placing EveryPolitician on hold

    After over five years of active development we have decided to pause work on the EveryPolitician project for the foreseeable future.

    In this post we’ll outline where we are leaving things, how you can make use of the data that does exist, and how you might be able to help migrate or transfer some of what we’ve collected over to services like Wikidata.

    What’s in place today

    The EveryPolitician project is, as its name suggests, based on the simple idea to gather accurate and up-to-date data on every politician in the world, collated and shared in a consistent format for free download and use by researchers, democracy projects, campaigners and individual citizens.

    Over the course of the project we have gathered, structured and shared data on 78,382 politicians from 233 countries and territories presented on EveryPolitician.org via hundreds of scrapers run on morph.io and hosted on GitHub, producing the data on everypolitician-data.

    Mostly the data covers the main chambers of recent parliaments around the world, but it also includes thousands of entries for previous parliaments, in some cases going back decades.

    This has been a sizeable undertaking, involving a handful of very talented developers and colleagues within mySociety, as well as contributions from dozens of other organisations and individuals, many of whom make use of the data within their own projects.

    The reality is that this work is hugely time consuming, complex and requires not just expert knowledge but a commitment to go deep into the intricacies of parliamentary data in order to make it comprehensible to a wider group of users. And looking to the next couple of years this task is only ever going to increase in complexity — too much for one underfunded organisation.

    We therefore intend to freeze the current data as it currently stands, and it will continue to be available for download and reuse. We just can no longer commit to keeping this data up to date.

    Always playing catch up

    The challenge with data projects like EveryPolitician, beyond the complexity of understanding the structures and relationships within hundreds of individual parliaments (every parliament is an edge case in some way), is that the data is always steadily going out of date.

    Across the world’s national parliaments there is an election somewhere roughly once a week, and that’s often when parliaments choose to update their websites, sometimes breaking our scrapers and changing the format of the data. Throughout the life of a parliament you might expect a few percent of MPs to change, sometimes more in different systems, so keeping on top of those individual changes is a sizeable task – especially where errors or duplications occur.

    In addition to managing the hundreds of scrapers, we also included data from other sources — increasingly from Wikidata. Over the past 18 months we’ve been attempting to migrate more and more of what we’ve learned on EveryPolitician over to Wikidata via the WikiProject every politician.

    Where the project goes next

    EveryPolitician was built on the many years of work we had already delivered in this area, through PopIt, Poplus and working with Popolo. We knew what was needed, what worked and what didn’t.

    We saw the potential to create an Open Corporates for political data, and hoped that EveryPolitician would be able to attract grant funding to grow, and potentially develop appropriate commercial services in support.

    However, after five years of significant investment we just don’t have the funding to continue this work on our own.

    In time we hope to be able to continue to contribute again to the wider availability of political data, and with hindsight it’s clear that Wikidata should be the natural global home for this type of data – benefitting from much greater reach, the contribution of motivated individuals in each country, and from the wider Wiki community.

    As part of our contribution to Wikidata, we’ve created numerous tools to support the cross-referencing, verification, and supported update of data between EveryPolitician and the Wikiproject. This is still something of a work in progress, but we see it as a key way that others might contribute and take on aspects of the project in the future.

    In the meantime we hope that many people continue to make use of the wealth of data that’s already been collected.

    If you have a specific interest in a country, group of legislatures or some other combination, perhaps you can consider adding the kind of data that  EveryPolitician has collected to Wikidata. We have no further resources to devote to this work; however if you do have an interest in taking some of this on then we will try to advise what options might best suit.

    Image: Jelle van Leest

  9. Making votes easier to understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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    Image: Katie McNabb

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

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

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

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

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

    Do

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

    Don’t

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

    If you get stuck

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

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

    Photo: Chase Clark