Excuse us while we just finish hanging this bunting…
Yes, wave the flags and toot those vuvuzelas: it’s National Democracy Week, a new initiative to celebrate the democratic process and encourage democratic participation.
And thanks to some extra-curricular work by one of the mySociety team, we’re now able to celebrate it in a quite exceptional way. Longstanding developer Matthew has used his own free time to import historic House of Commons debates from 1919-1935 into our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. With this work, he’s extended the site’s value as an easy-access archive of parliamentary activity even further.
You can check it out now by visiting TheyWorkForYou, searching for any word or phrase, and then sorting the search results by ‘oldest’. Or, pick any MP active during 1919-1935 and search for them to see every speech they made in Parliament.
Please let us know if you find anything of interest! For developers who use TheyWorkForYou data to power their own sites and apps, the extended content will also be available via TheyWorkForYou’s API.
“No one sex can govern alone” – Nancy Astor
This is the first National Democracy Week, and it has taken, as its theme, the anniversary of women’s suffrage: as you’re sure to have heard by now, 2018 is the centenary of (some) women getting the vote* in the UK.
We wanted to celebrate by highlighting some of the big milestones of women’s participation in Parliament, but there was just one problem. TheyWorkForYou only contained House of Commons debates as far back as the 1930s — while, for example, the maiden speech of Nancy Astor, the first woman to speak in Parliament, was in 1920.
So it’s a big deal that Matthew’s imported this early data into TheyWorkForYou, and we’re all the more grateful because he did so on his own time. It’s something we’ve wanted to do, but not had the resource for. You can now browse, search or link to Commons debates right back to 1919, and find not just women’s contributions, but a whole wealth of historic parliamentary content. Result!
What you can enjoy this week
We’re going to take this opportunity to highlight, through a week-long series of posts:
- Today: Milestones in women’s parliamentary participation A rundown of when and how women became integrated into the UK Parliament. You can see this, our first post of the week, right now.
- Tomorrow, our researcher Alex will be highlighting some of the ways people have used our data and APIs to explore issues of gender and representation and describe some of our future plans in this area. This also gives us the opportunity to point out where you can access all our lovely, juicy data, should you want to do something similar yourself.
- On Wednesday we’ll delve back into history, this time looking at the changes in law which have had bearing on women’s lives, with more links to richer background detail on TheyWorkForYou.
- On Thursday Alex is back, exploring what we can learn from EveryPolitician data about representation of women in democracies around the world.
- Friday will give us a chance to show how you can use TheyWorkForYou to research when topics were first mentioned in Parliament, and how that can give a snapshot of the zeitgeist.
- Finally, as a weekend bonus, we’ll be blogging on the various organisations which support women within our own sphere of Civic Tech.
We’ll add the links in for each day’s content as it goes live.
Since our sites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem in the UK, our activities with the Democratic Commons, and the support we give to partners in other countries are all, at heart, aiming to make democratic participation easier, we are, of course, all over this event. We hope you’ll enjoy the week!
*We can have another celebration in 2028 for the remaining women.
Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?
The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.
We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.
We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.
We’ve recently been trying out a few new ways of spreading the word about our Democracy websites.
New to us, that is. Clearly, leaflets, videos and posters aren’t exactly groundbreaking concepts in the wider world, but as a digital organisation with limited budgets for marketing, we’ve not really explored them in any depth before.
The motivation was something that’s one of our major drivers across lots of our work these days. Our own research has shown that our services are simply not reaching those sectors of society who might need them most: the least well-off, the less-educated, the young, and all sorts of minority demographics.
Ever-conscious of this shortcoming, we’re doing what we can to address it on multiple fronts. These latest experiments in print and video represent an attempt to learn more about what might work, and as with everything we do at mySociety, we’re keeping a careful eye on the outcomes. If we see good results then there’s an argument for rolling out similar approaches more widely and to different communities.
A video will only work if we can get people watching it though, so please help us spread the word by sharing it, especially if you know people aged around 16-25 who might find it of interest!
Leaflets and posters for schools
We wanted to let schoolchildren know that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem can provide a channel to get things changed, ask for help or express their views.
While we’d love to send leaflets and posters to every school in the country, that’d be rather expensive. So as a first step we identified 100 schools in the most deprived areas of the country (using the areas of deprivation index) and sent them a batch each. That way, we hope to reach young people who also might be most in need of empowerment.
We also kept back a limited number of surplus posters and leaflets, so if you’re from a school and you’d like us to send you some, drop us a line (first come first served).
It’s not quite in the same category, but we’ve also been in touch with every MP in the country, to let them know what we’re all about and how they (and their staff) can use our websites to best advantage.
Now and again we hear MPs saying things that show they’ve misunderstood our aims, funding, principles or provenance — our recent blog post shows a couple of examples of this — and to be fair, we haven’t made much effort recently to talk to representatives directly. So this is an attempt to redress that, and invite any elected representative to get in touch if they’d like to ask us some questions.
We’ll be keeping an eye on whether our user demographics change at all in the near future, and you can be sure we’ll report back if we see anything notable.
Top image: Thomas William
Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.
As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’
Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.
We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.
But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.
If you want to help campaign
The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.
At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.
Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.
In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:
- Request to see the tender for the provision of cladding
- How missing and unaccounted-for people have been counted
- Details of insurance on the tower
- Numbers and demographics of tenants
- Income and repairs expenditure
- Details of the 2013 emergency fire test
- Date of the last fire test
- Further details on the cladding, fire alarm and sprinklers
If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.
Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea The council in which Grenfell Tower is situated
- London Fire Brigade The service which ran rescue and firefighting operations
- Kensington and Chelsea TMO The Tenant Management Organisation, or Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) which managed the tower
- Metropolitan Police
- All ALMOs (for those who wish to ask for information about other blocks)
- All Housing Associations Note that, unless publicly owned, housing associations are not subject to FOI; however they are included on the site for the reasons you will see at the top of each housing association’s page on WhatDoTheyKnow, like this one.
Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.
Lobby for change
Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.
If you want quick answers
Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.
If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:
- Cladding on other tower blocks – reassurance needed
- Is Katherine’s Court in Spring Boroughs similar cladding to Grenfell Tower
- High Rise blocks in Wood Vale
But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.
WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.
What we will be doing
We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.
Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.
*Unless covered by an exemption.
It’s official, there’s going to be a General Election in the UK on June 8th.
As you might suspect mySociety has lots of tools and services that you might find useful during the campaign whether you just want to find out the voting record of your current MP or if you’re planning on building a website or app to cover the campaign.
First things first: TheyWorkForYou.com already covers in lots of detail who your MPs are and how they voted. This should be your first port of call so that you can evaluate your incumbent MP, especially when you’re thinking about who to vote for next.
Over the next couple of weeks we are going to make some changes here and there to make relevant parts of the voting record more prominent, and more clearly explain how we calculate the voting records themselves.
If you’re planning on using the data we have in TheyWorkForYou you can access information on UK politicians, parliamentary debates, written answers, and written ministerial statement via our API at theyworkforyou.com/api
Tomorrow we’ll share a blog post explaining in a little more technical detail how to access the API and some advice on how to get the most out of the service.
Building a service or website that covers all or part of the country and want an easy way to let your users identify which constituency they are in? Then MapIt is your friend.
It already powers most of our own services and is widely used by the likes of Government Digital Services and our friends at Democracy Club.
You can sign up for for free at mapit.mysociety.org and if you need more calls it’s easy to upgrade to a monthly plan – you can get 10,000 calls a month for free if you are a charity or working on an open project – if you think you are going to be busier than that (a) congrats and (b) drop us an email at email@example.com
Helping Democracy Club
Speaking of Democracy Club we’re going to be wholeheartedly supporting their efforts to crowdsource a full set of candidate data in the run up to the election – they are gathering all of their ideas together in this Google Doc https://goo.gl/8WtZvc
We had planned to make some updates and amends to the YourNextRepresentative service that supports Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVotefor.co.uk site in the quiet period between major elections, ahem, but with the snap election called we’ll be doing what we can to make the site run faster and make whatever UI tweaks and fixes we can in the time available.
They will no doubt be looking for help in sourcing candidate data, so please do sign up to help and find out what you can do democracyclub.org.uk/blog/2017/04/18/its-ge2017
In summary and to make it easy you can find all of our relevant #GE2017 datasets and APIs here data.mysociety.org/datasets/?category=ge2017
It’s not too late to let your current MP know what you think on any subject of your choice via WriteToThem.com.
And finally, don’t forget to register to vote yourself at gov.uk/register-to-vote
Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.
The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.
What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.
There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.
The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.
Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.
Educating, campaigning, sharing
The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.
If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.
When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.
Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.
How it works
Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.
When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.
But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.
Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.
Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.
All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.
We were glad to see this tweet back in July, when @adebradley identified WriteToThem as the place to go for information on how to write to your MP. We do try to make that process as easy as possible, so it was a fair assumption that we’d have such a template1.
But in fact, it was also a mistaken assumption, although we do have some more general advice in our FAQs. Basically, we offer lots of help on how to use our service, but we assume that the user can manage perfectly well once they’ve got to the ‘compose’ screen.
So I did what I always do when a user points out a ‘nice to have’ feature for one of our sites: I ticketed it on Github, our issue-tracking system. And then, when I got round to it, I sat down and did some thinking, and read some other websites which offer advice on writing to your MP.
And then I created a template to show people how to compose a letter that would be clear, readable, and likely to get a result.
As I was doing so, something felt wrong.
Firstly: who was going to visit this template? Even if we linked to it from the FAQs, would anyone ever find it? We know (without having to check our analytics, merely from the kind of messages we often get in our support mail) that the FAQs are not universally read. They’re more widely read since we moved the ‘Help’ link to the top right of every page, but all the same, it seems many users would rather drop us a line than find the answer on an FAQs page.
Then secondly: my template began to feel very patronising. Here was I, someone whose job is copywriting, handing out tips to… well, who? Presumably, our more educated, literate, eloquent users were not staring at a blank screen wondering how to begin a message to their MPs.
No: the people who need help writing to their MPs are going to be people who find it hard to express themselves in writing, and probably have never contacted their representatives before. And they are also the people least likely to wade through my sanctimonious examples and admonishments about what kind of language to use.
So, what now?
I took the issue to my colleagues, who were very helpful in sorting through this thinking. One of them led me to this link, which underscored the uneasiness over whether anyone ever reads FAQs, with wisdom like:
FAQs are convenient for writers […] But they’re more work for readers.
And between us, we reached the conclusion that the problem of people not knowing what, or how, to write to an MP wasn’t going to be solved by copywriting after all: if it was going to be solved at all, it was going to be with design and development.
If we were really going to help our users, it’d have to be right there on the page, at the moment when they get stuck.
Just as FixMyStreet gives discreet tips about what kind of content is appropriate in a report, WriteToThem might also guide a user to start with a clear statement about what the writer wants or needs, and to follow up with concise details. Or it might detect bad language and alert the user that their message is likely to disappear into an MPs’ anti-abuse filter. Maybe we could have an optional template within the ‘compose’ box which could be toggled on or off.
We haven’t got any further than that yet, and we promise not to build the 21st century equivalent of Clippy — but what started with a tweet may end up as some in-browser guidelines.
1 It’s probably worth clarifying that, when we talk about templates for letters to MPs, we are not talking about the sending of identikit messages – rather, we mean guides as to what sort of content to include. We have always, and will always, encourage users to write in their own words, and block mass messages from those who don’t. Here’s why.
If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.
A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .
But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.
Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.
Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.
Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.
— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.