We’re starting the new year in the best way possible — with a new project that we’re really excited to get our teeth into.
Just before we all went off for the Christmas holidays, we learned that mySociety had won the contract to work on the Discovery and Alpha phases of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s Central Register of Planning Permissions. To put it simply, this is the first couple of steps towards an eventual plan to aggregate and share, as Open Data, information on residential planning applications from councils across England.
Those who have followed mySociety for some time may remember that we have some experience in this area: we’ve previously worked around planning permissions with authorities in Barnet and Hampshire. More widely, many of our projects involve taking data from a range of different sources, tidying it up and putting it out into the world as consistent, structured Open Data that anyone can use. The most ambitious of these is EveryPolitician; the most recent is Keep It In The Community, and in both cases we suspect the issues — data in a variety of different formats and of widely differing qualities, being stored in many different places — will be broadly the same when it comes to planning permissions.
But we don’t know exactly that for sure, and neither does MHCLG, which is why they’re very sensibly getting us to kick off with this period of research, testing and trying out proofs of concept. With work that will involve our developers, design team, consultation with experts in the field and collaboration with MHCLG, we’re right in our happy place.
Best of all, the project ticks a lot of mySociety boxes. The eventual Open Data set that should come out of all this will:
- Help central government utilise digital to best effect: once this dataset exists, they’ll be able to develop tools that support the planning system and housing markets
- Aid local authorities in keeping consistent and useful data on their own planning applications, allowing them to analyse trends and plan wisely for the future
- Benefit the building industry as well as local residents as they have access to information on which applications have previously succeeded or failed in their own areas
- Be open to developers, who — as history tends to show — may use it create useful third party tools beyond the imagination of government itself.
This project is one of a number of pieces of work we’ll be doing with central and local government this year. With all of these, we’re committing to working in the open, so expect plenty of updates along the way.
mySociety has been a leading light in the Civic Tech movement since 2003, helping to shape and define the sector and building services used by over ten million people each year in over 40 countries worldwide.
During this time Civic Tech has grown and matured; delivering plenty of impact, but also hitting numerous stumbling blocks along the way. In mySociety’s fifteenth year we’re taking stock of the best way to achieve our long term goals and ambitions.
So today at the Code for All summit, Heroes of Tech in Bucharest, we announced our intention to become an affiliate member of the Code for All network.
mySociety and Code for All both recognise the power of working in partnership, of being honest and self-critical about the effects of our work, of working openly and transparently and seeking the best outcomes for citizens in their dealings with governments and the public sector.
Code for All is probably best known for Code for America, which set out the blueprint for a civic tech group working closely with government. Now that Code for All is growing beyond these early roots to become more than a collection of individual ‘Code For’ organisations it is broadening its own perspective to include more groups outside of government, we feel that this is a good time for mySociety to deepen our collaboration within this growing movement.
Every success we’ve had has come from working well with our partners. Each of our services internationally is run by a local partner with mySociety providing development help and support and the benefit of our service development and research experience.
In recent months through our Democratic Commons project we’ve worked with numerous Code for All partners, including CodeForPakistan, OpenUp, CodeForJapan, ePanstwo, G0v and others. Those of you who have attended our TICTeC conferences will know that they attract many members of the Code for All network as participants each year.
What mySociety can bring to the network is a unique international aspect, a commitment to collaborate and combine our efforts on cooperative democratic projects, a willingness to more widely share our research and evidence building experience and a desire to improve the positive impact of our work.
We would benefit from more of our work being seen as truly collaborative, and are no strangers to the challenges of seeking grant and project funding and the importance of working together to achieve this.
With all the challenges facing democracy — governments struggling under austerity; fake news and dark money distorting the truth; a slow burn environmental catastrophe playing out around us; hard won rights and the norms of a fair and just society under threat — now more than ever feels like an important time to be working more closely together.
So we’re excited by the opportunities that this timely partnership will deliver and keen to see where this takes us.
March 3 is Open Data Day, and groups all around the world will be using Open Data in their communities, to show its benefits and to encourage the sharing of more data from government, business and civil society.
Obviously, that depends on their having some good-quality data to work with — and we’d like to help make that happen. Or, more accurately, help you to help make that happen.
Just as with Global Legislative Open Week last October, we’ll support groups who would like to run a workshop, getting together with other like-minded people to improve the open political data available for your country in Wikidata.
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 during February. If you’d like to hold an event like this, it’s pretty simple: all you need is a space, and someone with some existing Wikidata skills who can show others how to add or improve data. Then you just have to pick a date, and put out the word for people to join you.
We can help with a few things, so let us know once you’ve decided to take part, and we’ll chat with you about what might be useful. Here’s what we can offer:
- A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
- In-person support during your event – we may be able to send one of our EveryPolitician/Wikidata team to your event to present, participate and advise
- 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
Workshops can take place at any time until the end of February.
So, if you’d like to be part of this push to improve and use political information in Wikidata in order to contribute to the Democratic Commons, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
The words ‘annual report’ might bring to mind a dull brochure dotted with graphs, pie charts and photos of directors in suits.
That’s not quite how we do things at mySociety though. Our annual report takes just five minutes to read, with plenty of nice pictures and not a suit in sight.
Got a moment? Take a look now.
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.
In June this year, a Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was appointed. Submissions of written evidence were invited, and of course, this being very much our area, we felt the need to contribute.
Our written evidence is a fairly quick read. Nonetheless we hope that it gets the essential points across, drawing on our experience in what works and what doesn’t in technology for civic engagement.
You can view all the submissions the inquiry received on the Parliament website. The committee will report their findings by the end of March next year.
In my last post I introduced the concept of 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.”
Over the next few weeks we’re going to elaborate more on what we mean by this, what we’re doing to help contribute and make more connections to help others contribute.
I’ve asked our own Matt Jukes to take on a new role as Head of Product with a remit to better articulate our vision both internally and externally about why we do what we do and why it’s important. As you might know Jukesie’s not afraid of sharing what he’s up to and he’s already been giving some insights into how we’ve been developing our Better Cities practice.
He’ll be taking this a stage further by talking about the ‘Democratic Commons’, why it is important and mySociety’s role in making it a reality. Except to hear a LOT more from Jukesie on this and our other product stories over the coming months.
We’re able to dedicate more time to this because we’ve also just hired our new Sales Director, David Eaton, who joins us from a ten year stint supporting Local Government at Public-I.
David is a really important hire for us in our Better Cities team at a perfect time. He’ll be leading the charge as we roll out FixMyStreet Pro to more councils around the UK – if you haven’t already you can try out a live demo of the service.
He’ll be joining in early October and if you’d like to find out more about FMS Pro before then please do get in touch.
Finally as we’re on a bit of a team update we made one really important promotion over the summer that we haven’t yet shouted about enough.
We’ve promoted Louise Crow to the role of Head of Development and she’s been busy with refining the day to day management of our development team and she’ll be ensuring we’ve got good plans in place for each person’s career development.
Louise has been an essential member of mySociety since joining back in 2009 and has been an invaluable support and mentor for me personally since I joined a couple of years ago.
Just as importantly Louise is also looking to ensure we’re properly connected into wider external developer networks and connecting to other friendly civic organisations who share our mission or might benefit from some support.
So congrats to Louise and Jukesie and looking forward to getting David in post in a few weeks.
You may know Dr Ben Goldacre from his ‘Bad Science’ and ‘Bad Pharma’ campaigns, which fight misinformation around medicine. Ben has just launched his latest project, the AllTrials Transparency Index — and mySociety helped with the website side of things.
The AllTrials campaign focuses around the fact that a shockingly large proportion of clinical trials do not have their results publicly published.
Not only does this devalue the time, goodwill and even potential risk put in by participants, but there are also issues around bias. Those trials published tend to be the ones which show positive results: if that doesn’t sound like such a terrible situation to you, try playing this game from the Economist magazine, which graphically depicts the problems with skewed coverage. At worst, such selective publication can be dangerous, or lead to poor choices from bodies making medical purchasing decisions.
Transparency and data visualisation are two areas where mySociety has a long history, and so it came to be that we fashioned the deceptively simple AllTrials Transparency Index site, on which anyone can browse the transparency index of the world’s major drug companies, and dive in deeper to the data to see how it was compiled. The source data is free for others to download too, so anyone can integrate it into other projects.
AllTrials are also tracking whether companies register new trials:
That’s the part that anyone can understand — and now, notes for the more technically-inclined who may be wondering how we took the data on each drugs company and presented it in a way that can be quickly and easily taken in.
This is an ongoing campaign with a commitment to future audits, so we wanted to make it easy for the AllTrials team to update the site and republish the source data each time they do.
It’s a static Jekyll site. We wrote a custom plug-in to parse a CSV and produce a page for each company within that CSV, as well as creating some summary data that feeds into the graphs on the front page.
This data is then pulled from the CSV, and D3 is employed to build the graphs and insert them into the generated pages.
The end result is a site that looks good and which can automatically update whenever the underlying data changes. We hope we’ll have played a small part in helping to ensure that it does — and for the better.
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.
Millions of people reached for their phone on June 9, and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.
Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.
And the morning after, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:
We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.
Reaching people where they are
mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.
That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.
What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.
That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.
That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.
Facebook for engagement
You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.
Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.
mySociety behind the scenes
Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.
In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?
Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).
While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.
Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.