It’s been a few months since we first announced our Democratic Commons project under the banner of “shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit” — but if we’ve been silent since then, it’s certainly not for a lack of activity.
Quite the reverse, in fact: we’ve been busy bringing new team members on board and getting stuck in with the time-consuming and often fiddly process of data gathering and sharing.
When we’re in the midst of all this hard work, it’s sometimes hard to remember to talk about how everything’s going; but it’s always interesting, so here’s a snapshot of where we are now.
Those of us working on Democratic Commons are only a small team within the smallish organisation mySociety. Gathering in-depth data on politicians all around the world takes more time and more local knowledge than we have ourselves, so we’re working with partners located within our target countries.
Distintas Latitudes have been handling Latin America – they’ve been great at gathering data and explaining the various differences between the political systems in each country we’ve worked together on.
In India, Factly and Gender And Politics have done the most amazing job in gathering a full national and state level dataset for politicians right across the country. We were astounded, as that is a LOT of data (over 3,500 records and counting so far).
And in South East Asia we’re working with OCF, with whom we’ve had a long association (you may remember TICTeC Taiwan, for example). OCF have helped us with data for Taiwan and South Korea so far, and are set to work with us on seven more countries before December 2018.
Finally, a special mention goes to OpenLeb of Lebanon, who are working hard to start finding data in a country where data is not usually open. We genuinely could not do this work without our partners and we are eternally grateful for their help.
As is probably clear from the above, we often select which countries to work on by our ability to find a community or organisation that will extend help. A nice side effect of this is that we’re strengthening the connections and bonds between mySociety and organisations with similar missions in many different places.
Growing the community of such organisations across the world is going to be the primary focus of our new Community Manager Georgie, whom you will no doubt hear a lot from over the next few months.
She’s going to be finding out who’s already using data like this, who’s maintaining it, who’s interested in running projects with it or doing research — and seeing if there’s also an appetite there to keep the data up to date. This is because the data will really only be useful to people if it’s well maintained and current!
Working with Wikidata
Early on, we recognised that improving the political data available in Wikidata, rather than ringfencing it all within EveryPolitician, was going to be an efficient way to maximise the benefits of the Democratic Commons project.
What does this mean in practice? Well, in our first phase we’ve targeted 13 places in which to locate the data and load it into Wikidata: Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Lebanon, India, S Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Ultimately, we want to help make any and all information about politicians at every level freely and openly available via the Commons; but for now, our initial scope looks at representatives at national, regional, and city legislatures.
Now that a lot of this work is being done on or in Wikidata, we’re creating tools to make processes smoother and faster. The main ones of these are around verifying data and creating statements in Wikidata; we hope that when we’ve completed these they’ll be valuable to the whole Wikidata community beyond just the Democratic Commons project.
Step by step
We’re focusing on getting what we’re terming ‘Outline Data’ for each place loaded into Wikidata first. This type of data helps us model the political system, as it tells us what the legislature looks like — for example, whether it is unicameral, bicameral or different to those; what it calls members of the legislature; what term the legislature is on and how long that lasts; and often how many seats that legislature contains.
Once we have that outline data, we then need some information about people holding seats in those legislatures. We try and start with five examples of each type of role at each level, then we can send this ‘Seed Data’ off to hopefully crowdsource the rest of the data: more on that in a bit!
Meanwhile, our GIS expert Will is working on boundaries. Boundary data is hard — like, really hard! This is one of the most challenging areas of the project but it’s also one of the most important. Without electoral boundaries we don’t know what area a politician is representing and a lot of the tools we think this data would be useful for just won’t work.
However, boundaries aren’t always released openly or completely, especially when it comes to local level constituencies, and even when we do find them, understanding whether we have all the data we need to represent politicians correctly can be really tricky.
Because we like to keep really busy, we’ve also been starting to collaborate with other organisations such as Open Knowledge and CLEA on how to raise the visibility of the availability (or lack, more likely) of open sources of official boundary data.
Working with Facebook
You may remember our ongoing work to connect Facebook users with their politicians after an election, in countries around the world.
We’re also working with Facebook to run some crowdsourcing experiments that will gather more data on politicians. I mentioned ‘Seed Data’ above. For each country, this gets fed to Facebook, and allows them to create questions which they can send to users to ask them who their representatives are at different levels of government.
We then get this data back and our partners help us verify it and put it into Wikidata so the it becomes open and available for anyone to use. Facebook has a reach we would never be able to manage on our own.
So that’s where we are
As I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this post, the work is extremely challenging. That’s why we’re sometimes a little slow in updating where we’ve got to — but we genuinely believe that that having this data out there in the open will pave the way for so many exciting new political data-based projects and research. And so, onwards!
Image: Ben White (Unsplash)
Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.
Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.
Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.
We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.
So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.
We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).
A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!
From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).
We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.
One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.
After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.
We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).
A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.
Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.
During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).
A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.
We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.
So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.
We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!
Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)
As you’ll remember from our previous blogpost, the Global Legislative Openness Week — AKA GLOW — provided us with a great opportunity to support events and spread the word about our ambitious Wikidata project with groups around the world.
In the end we sponsored nine events (in Slovenia, Sweden, Croatia, Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Spain, Wales and, amazingly, Nepal) and sent representatives to support seven of them in person. This meant that Tony, the lead for the EveryPolitican project, had an interesting 10 days getting the most out of budget airlines and managing to attend six of the events. He would have liked to have made it seven but EasyJet don’t go to Nepal! Also special thanks to Lucas who represented the project in Greece and Bulgaria taking a little of the pressure from Tony.
— OBC Transeuropa (@BalkansCaucasus) November 27, 2017
Five of the countries (Croatia, Greece, Italy, Slovenia and Spain) moved from very little or no coverage of political data in Wikidata to our two-star (or better) indicator — this is a (very) rough guide to how good the data is in a country; we are tracking what information already exists for the primary house of a national legislature which you can learn more about on our Wikidata project page. Wales was already a ‘three-star’ country and the others are coming along nicely.
— Open Knowledge NP (@okfn_np) December 1, 2017
We couldn’t be happier with the response and contributions made to the Democratic Commons by the participants — and we’re extremely keen to do more events early next year, collaborating with Wikimedia communities to make this happen. If that sounds interesting take a look at our original blogpost about the events and get in touch if it seems up your street.
Ahora @tmtm nos introduce al wikiproyecto @everypolitician, toda la info aquí >> https://t.co/8w1EhNNd9Q ¡En esta sesión vamos a añadir los primeros datos españoles! @mySociety @medialabprado pic.twitter.com/NyKX3AVmLG
— Wikimedia España (@wikimedia_es) November 29, 2017
All in all these events really felt like a culmination of all the learnings and activities undertaken in the project so far. The strides we have taken in understanding the best way to model this kind of data in Wikidata and the tools that have been built are what made it possible to make such a big impact in each of the countries in just a day or two. Not all of these lessons were easy to learn but they are really starting to pay dividends now.
We really want to keep this momentum up and build even more relationships with Wikimedia communities who are interested in contributing to the Democratic Commons in their countries so I can’t reiterate it enough – please do get in touch if you would like to get involved.
One more thing
If you’ve read this with great interest to the very end, then you are just the sort of person who we’re looking for! We currently have a vacancy for a Political Researcher to help us kickstart this kind of work in up to 100 countries, supporting our ambitions in the Democratic Commons project. See the job description here.
Yesterday Matt explained what we hope to achieve with the Democratic Commons, our drive for shared, high-quality political Open Data.
If you read that and thought, ‘Blimey, that sounds like a lot of work’ — well, we thought so too. Hence, three new job openings.
As so often at mySociety, the skills we’re looking for aren’t exactly mainstream: on the other hand, if you do have a particular interest in the field, the chances are you’ll be a very good match.
So if you’re a bit of a geek about political boundary data…
Or if you have big ideas about how to build and maintain a large-scale distributed architecture for sourcing and updating basic political information…
Or if writing queries to extract data from Wikidata sounds like something you might do just for kicks … well, then the chances are that you’d fit in very well.
Find out more about all the vacancies here and please do pass them along to anyone who might fit the bill.
And because we know that it can be hard to make a big decision, especially before you know exactly what a workplace is like, we’ve done two things: we’ve expanded our Careers page to include more of a description of our so-called ‘company culture’, and we’ve opened up a blog post where you can ask us anything about working here.
Back in September mySociety’s Chief Executive Mark introduced the idea of the ‘Democratic Commons’: a grand vision where political data is open to all, for the benefit of all. Since then we’ve been quietly working away on making the concept a reality, with some activity more clearly feeding into it, like our current series of events for GLOW, and some requiring a bit of explanation, like our relationship with Facebook — but what we haven’t really done to date is expand on what the Democratic Commons means and why we believe it is so important.
So let’s take a go at a clear definition.
The Open Data Institute have been promoting the idea of data infrastructure for some time now:
A data infrastructure consists of data assets, the organisations that operate and maintain them and guides describing how to use and manage the data.
It underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society.
Our vision for the Democratic Commons begins with this concept and advocates for a particular strand within it. It promotes the building of an open, sustainable data infrastructure for political data on a global scale. So nothing too grand then!
In essence this is an evolution of our EveryPolitician project — it takes the lessons we learned there and uses them to underpin a new approach. But it is also the culmination of many years of running and developing projects all over the world and facing the same challenges with the data needed to get started time and again: lists of politicians not up to date, or in an unusable format; ‘unique’ IDs being less than unique; administrative boundaries not being available, available under restrictive license or in some entirely unhelpful format.
The effort and cost of just getting this initial data in place — before you can even start the real work of empowering citizens or holding power to account — is often so high that it stymies teams from the off. We want to change this. We want organisations who are interested in running transparency or accountability projects in their countries to be able to find all this infrastructure in place and get to building straight away.
Beyond this core goal we also want to provide richer open data because the better the data the better the questions that can be asked of it and if, as Giuseppe Sollazzo says, data journalism is the future of Open Data, then we need to make sure that we can provide those journalists the answers they need (and maybe help tackle #fakenews a bit in the doing so!).
In no way do we see ourselves as the gatekeepers for this data and instead we are seeking to be true to the concept of ‘commons’ from the start — working with the global communities and platforms that already exist in support of Open Data and content.
We’ve already started to work with the Wikimedia Foundation through our project with Wikidata and see this as a cornerstone of any approach to the Democratic Commons. Of course we also want to speak to members of the OpenStreetMap community about their experiences with administrative boundaries and we’ll be reaching out to them soon.
In the coming weeks we are going to be recruiting for some additional colleagues to help us with all of this so if political and or geographical data is your thing please keep an eye out.
Even with some additions to the team there’s no way we can achieve this alone — we’ve already collaborated with partner organisations like Code4Japan and Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland — and there will be many more partnerships to come. You can expect to read much more about that in future months.
Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) celebrates open, participatory legislative processes across the globe.
Back in 2015 we marked GLOW by setting up a challenge: could we get politician data for 200 countries up on EveryPolitician within the week, with the help of the global community? The answer was a resounding yes, and the challenge was a massive success. We ended up with data for 201 countries in the end, thanks to help from awesome people from all over the world.
This year, we’re running another challenge: to get as many Wikidata workshops focusing on political data to happen during GLOW as possible.
Fancy helping with this challenge? Read on…
This is all part of our Wikidata/EveryPolitician project.
The project aims to improve political data in Wikidata, so that it can be used more easily for projects, research or investigations that hold politicians to account. Examples of where good political data is vital include in parliament-tracking websites (like in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ukraine) and in cross-border journalistic investigations (like the Panama Papers).
Providing this data in consistent and structured formats across countries means the people running these accountability projects spend less of their time gathering the data and more on actually using and interpreting it, to keep tabs on those in power. This project is all part of our mission to contribute to the Democratic Commons.
One of the best ways to improve and use political data on Wikidata is to get people together in person to work on their country’s data. So, that’s the aim with this latest GLOW challenge, and we’d love for as many groups around the world to host Wikidata workshops as possible!
The aim of these Wikidata workshops is to:
- Improve political information in Wikidata so that developers, researchers and journalists (or anyone!) can use the data in their investigations and accountability projects.
- Use and query existing political data in Wikidata to see what interesting questions can be answered when data is available in consistent and structured formats.
Workshop attendees will go away with:
- Increased knowledge of how Wikidata works and how to contribute to it
- A better understanding of why good political data is so vital and how it can be used
- New connections to the global community of people who care about accountability issues
- A warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that they’ve helped with the global accountability movement 😉 (We hope so anyway!)
Not sure what such an event might look like? Read up on our recent Wikifying Westminster workshop: it really showed us how much can be done when a few people get together in a room.
Funding and support available
Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re able to offer some support to individuals/groups who are interested in running Wikidata workshops like these during GLOW. This will differ on a case by case basis but includes:
- A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
- A review of your country’s existing political information in Wikidata and some pointers about possible next steps
- Ideas for how you and your attendees can:
a) Use the data for interesting research and projects, and
b) Improve the data for future research queries/projects
- In-person support during your event – if you’d like one of our EveryPolicitian/Wikidata team to come to your event to present and participate, we can do this (if our budget allows!)
- Access to a dedicated Slack channel which connects you with other groups around the world who are also running events during GLOW.
Workshops can take place at any time within GLOW week, which is from 20th-30th November 2017 (yes, that is a long week!).
So, if you’d like to be part of this global challenge to improve and use political information in Wikidata, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Earlier this month, Mark laid out the concept of a Democratic Commons for the Civic Tech community: shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit.
He also talked about exploring new models for funding the kind of work that we do in our Democracy practice at mySociety.
For many years, our Better Cities work has been proof of concept for one such model: we provide data and software as a service (FixMyStreet, MapIt, Mapumental) to paid clients, the revenue from which then funds our charitable projects. Could a similar system work to sustain our Democracy practice?
That’s the hope, and with Facebook who we first worked with during the UK General Election in June, providing the data that helped people see and connect with their elected representatives, we’ve already seen it in action.
This kind of project is positive on multiple levels: it brings us an income, it brings the benefits of democratic engagement to a wider audience than we could reach on our own, and it contributes data back into EveryPolitician and Wikidata, that everyone can use.
The UK election was only the first for which we did this work: we’ve gone on to provide the same service for the French elections and more recently for the rather more eventful Kenyan ones — currently on hold as we await the re-run of the Presidential election next month. And now we’re doing the same for the German elections, where candidate data is being shared this week.
As we’re learning, this is definitely not one-size-fits-all work, and each country has brought its own interesting challenges. We’re learning as we go along — for example, one significant (and perhaps obvious) factor is how much easier it is to work with partners in-country who have a better understanding of the sometimes complex political system and candidates than we can ever hope to pick up. Much as we might enjoy the process, there’s little point in our spending days knee-deep in research, when those who live in-country can find lists of candidates far more quickly, and explain individual levels of government and electoral processes far better.
Then, electoral boundaries are not always easy to find. We’ve used OpenStreetMap where possible, but that still leaves some gaps, especially at the more granular levels where the data is mainly owned and licensed by the government. It’s been an exercise in finding different sources and putting them all together to create boundary data to the level required.
Indeed, that seems to be a general pattern, also replicated across candidate data: at the national level, it’s easy to find and in the public domain. The deeper you go, the less those two descriptors hold true. It was also at this point that we realised how much, here in the UK, we take for granted things like the fact that the spelling of representatives’ names is usually consistent across a variety of sources — not always a given elsewhere, and currently something that only a human can resolve!
What makes all the challenges more worthwhile, though, is that we know it’s not just a one-off push that only benefits a single project. Nor is the data going straight into Facebook, never to be seen again.
Much of what we’re collecting, from consistent name data to deep-level boundaries data, is to be made available to all under open use licenses. For example, where possible we can submit the boundaries back to OpenStreetMap, helping to improve it at a local granular level across whole countries.
The politician data, meanwhile, will go into Wikidata and EveryPolitician so that anyone can use it for their own apps, websites, or research.
There are also important considerations about how this type of data will be used and where and when it is released in the electoral process; finding commercial models for our Democracy work is arguably a more delicate exercise than on some of our other projects. But hopefully it’s now clear exactly how a project like this can both sustain us as a charity, and have wider benefits for everyone — the holy grail for an organisation like us.
At the moment it’s unclear how many such opportunities exist or if this is a one-off. We’re certainly looking for more avenues to extend the scope of this work and keen to hear more ideas on this approach.
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So as announced elsewhere on the mySociety blog I am going to have a bit of a different role from now on. It has happened pretty quickly – following a conversation with Mark our Chief Exec during a (not very) West Wing-esque walk and talk through St James Park where I suggested that I might have some capacity to do more and maybe I wasn’t really doing enough of the things that got me hired.
A couple of things have been brewing that meant this was a timely discussion. The ‘Democratic Commons’ work is something that immediately struck a chord with me – we talk about it as being;
“A concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.”
More than that though it is basically the democratic data infrastructure that Governments should provide but so often don’t and making it as widely and openly available as possible. Practically that has meant us building a relationship with Wikidata to have a truly international, sustainable and trusted platform for the data and also nurture commercial relationships with internet giants like Facebook to provide both huge reach for the data but also a funding stream that underpins the work for the commons.
There is a careful balance to be struck for sure but the work is too important not to try.
Also there is some work emerging from our Better Cities practice and discussions with partner organisations that is looking at broadening the reach of our services, and of civic tech tools in general, that I am really passionate about making happen. It is all quite early but you can expect some blogposts about this as well in the near future – thinking in the open – it is what we do!
These are both exciting opportunities and exactly the sort of thing I joined mySociety to work on and so I was keen to find a way to really contribute to both.
This post from a couple of years ago by Matt Walton at Futurelearn has been a bit of a touchstone for me about how I approach my work since I stumbled upon it. Mainly as it is always reassuring to read something by someone else that articulates much of what you are already doing but also the clarity of that articulation also highlights where the gaps are in your own approach.
So (other) Matt identifies six priorities for a Head of Product;
– Storytelling and inspiring
– Providing purpose and direction
– Exploring and reporting
– Listening and explaining
– Supporting and empowering
– Coordinating and collaborating
To one extent or another these six pretty much reflect what Mark has asked me to do (which is helpful!).
Storytelling and inspiring
Inspiring sounds a bit too ‘Californian’ but there is no doubt that ‘storytelling’ is a big part of the reason I got this job. Because…let us be honest…I have a reputation as a publicity hound 🙂 I have a profile built by blogging, speaking, tweeting, arranging meet-ups and my commitment to working in the open that provides a platform to get our messages heard but I haven’t been doing enough of that. I need to do better and I think the ‘Democratic Commons’ and also the emerging ‘local’ work provide some really interesting opportunities to get out there and stir up some interest.
Providing purpose and direction
I don’t actually think these kind of roles ‘provide’ purpose or direction – but there is a responsibility to make sure that people understand both and are making decisions aligned with them. mySociety are a small, nimble organisation – not some huge public institution but ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal, which they understand and support is important for any successful team. This isn’t about being heavy handed and again really comes down to communication – the more internally focused side of things.
Exploring and reporting
In our context this is a bit different to what (other) Matt initially had in mind I think but it works anyway. There is part of this role that is concerned with being on the lookout for opportunities – whether they be partnerships, grants, commercial leads or new challenges in our space and making sure the right people are made aware and the right actions are taken.
Listening and explaining
Part of this is just about being an empathic member of the team, making sure every voice is heard and that everyone understands why decisions have been taken and what the goals are. This is something that is easier in co-located teams – when you are sitting with everyone you can pick up on moods and frustrations much faster than via Slack or even Hangouts and you can preempt many situations. Working remotely provides a challenge for this sort of thing but it is an interesting one.
There is another part of this though – listening to our users. Doing more user research and really using our analytics to make product decisions. I’m keen to make this sort of thinking much more of an integral part of any new initiative from the start.
Supporting and empowering
This is very much related to the first point above. It is about making sure team members are empowered (and provided sufficient cover) to make decisions to get things done without the need to second guess themselves. This is pretty second nature here at mySociety – having a small team of so many talented people makes it an obvious way to work. Still everyone needs reassurance sometimes!
Coordinating and collaborating
For us this isn’t about trying to coordinate across multiple product teams – we aren’t Spotify – but there is clearly a job to be done to coordinate our collaborations with partners, funders and clients on all manner of projects. Providing them with a clarity as to what we are providing for them but also what we need from them.
So that’s the sort of things I’m thinking about…what this looks like in more detail will emerge in the days and weeks to come I’m sure. You can expect to get royally fed up with my blogposts and hopefully get bored of me talking about our work at meet-ups and conferences (organisers if anything sounds interesting for your event give me a shout!).
mySociety was built on its Democracy practice, a pioneer in providing simple- to-use tools that demystify the democratic process, allow citizens to understand how decisions are being made on their behalf and ensure that their voices are heard by elected representatives.
We’ve been on a long journey, from the early days of FaxYourMP which eventually became WriteToThem, to our pivotal TheyWorkForYou service which has both stretched the ambitions of Parliament in the UK and led us to develop similar services in Kenya, South Africa and beyond.
Amidst all of this has been our ongoing push to better standardise and make accessible more Open Data on politicians around the world; initially through our Poplus and Pombola projects, but more recently – and with more success – through our EveryPolitician service which has blossomed into a remarkable dataset of almost 4 million datapoints on over 72,000 politicians in 233 countries and territories.
Despite these successes I don’t think we’ve yet sufficiently cracked the challenge at scale of enabling more organisations to monitor and report upon the work of more politicians in more countries. We need to do something about that.
One of the principles that has always underpinned mySociety is that we carry our work out in the open, freely available for others to use. But, as is common with many Open Source projects, we do most of the development work ourselves internally. While community contributions are very welcome, practicality has dictated that more often than not, these are more commonly directed to raising tickets rather than making changes to the actual code.
Unchecked, this situation could lead to us being too internally focused; on developing everything ourselves rather than recognising where we can achieve our objectives by supporting other projects.
Fortunately our collaboration with Wikidata, announced earlier this year, suggests what promises to be a clear way forward to scaling up the impact of our work: we recognised that EveryPolitician could only become sustainable at scale as part of a wider community effort if we want our data to be used more widely.
By contributing to what we’ll call the Democratic Commons — a concept of shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit — we can help build and strengthen core infrastructure, tools and data that allow other democracy organisations and campaigners to hold their own governments to account.
This was notably put into practice for the snap General Election in the UK in June, where rather than build something new ourselves we directly supported the work of Democracy Club in their efforts to source candidate data and ensured that our existing services like MapIt, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow were easily accessible for other campaigning and democracy organisations to put into use.
More recently we’ve established a commercial partnership with Facebook to provide them with accurate and independent lists of candidates and elected representatives matched to their relevant Facebook profile pages for the UK, French and Kenyan elections.
There’s a wider benefit to this kind of commercial work, beyond its being a useful source of additional revenue for mySociety. More importantly, it will allow us to feed the data that we source back into the Democratic Commons. It can contribute to EveryPolitician and Wikidata, and even improve boundary data internationally through OpenStreetMap, which in turn powers our own Global MapIt service.
Why is this important now?
Well, it’s not just the rather obvious observation that working with other people is a good idea. The reality is that we need to face the fact that our Democratic practice is just not fully funded, and, as with WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at best we’ll need to consider how more of our services in the UK can be run and directly supported by volunteers and the wider community.
At worst it’s quite possible that we’ll be forced to close some of our popular UK services and restrict the further development of our democracy work internationally.
In April next year we come to the end of our six-year grant agreement with the Omidyar Network who have given us tremendous support over that time. This will leave a substantial hole in our core funding and it’s one reason why we’ve been so diligently focused on developing appropriate new commercial services like FixMyStreetPro and WhatDoTheyKnowPro.
Without sufficient unrestricted core funding — that is, funding which can be applied wherever in the organisation it is most needed — we need to rely much more on specific project funding wherever we can find it. In most cases, however, this project funding comes with its own set of tasks to deliver, and there’s a tendency to want new shiny things, rather than supporting the maintenance of our existing projects. This is especially true of our Democracy work which relies more heavily on grant funding than commercial alternatives.
Sensibly directing our own work more towards contributions to external projects is also a hedge, should we need to find new homes for our services or shutter them for the time being.
In the meantime we’ll be speaking to more funders who we hope might recognise the importance of supporting and building the essential infrastructure of the Democratic Commons, but in the event that isn’t forthcoming we’ll do what it takes to ensure our work to date continues to have some value and impact.
As we start to map out a path to a sustainable future for mySociety and its community, I’d appreciate all thoughts on where we go next with this — after all, we can’t do this without your help.
Would you say you’re pretty clued up about the political system in the UK? If you’re reading this blog, it’s fair to assume that you know a bit more about politics than the average bear.
But that’s not true of everyone who uses our sites, and that’s why we’ve put out a Beginners’ Guide to the General Election.
It’s in three short parts — each takes only 5 minutes or so to read — and they cover the background and timetable of the Election; how to make an informed vote; and finally the logistics of actually casting your ballot.
There’s also a summary countdown so you can make sure you’ve done everything you need to.
Think this is a bit simplistic? Through the emails we receive via User Support, we have a really immediate insight into the common questions, worries and misconceptions around UK politics. Some of them are complex and esoteric. Others make us realise that if we haven’t set out the basics, we’re failing in our aim of making democracy easier for everyone to understand.
Equally, if we step away from the mySociety bubble and dip into social media, it’s easy to see the level of confusion around the pending General Election. Questions I’ve seen recently on my local community’s Facebook page include:
Do we vote twice, once for Corbyn/May and once for our local MP?
You don’t have to join a party to vote for it, do you?
Can I vote in my neighbouring constituency to help my chosen party win, if they’re a dead cert in my own constituency?
These were the real spur towards writing a simple explainer. If you come across friends, family or workmates who have similar queries, we hope you’ll find it useful to share our beginners’ guide.
We work to make democracy easier for everyone to understand — and your contributions help us carry on doing so.Donate now