Have you ever typed a phrase like ‘what’s the time in New York’ or ‘what is 28 km in miles’ into Google? If you’ve done so in the last couple of years, you’ll have seen answers given on the results page itself, inside dedicated answer boxes.
We’re delighted to share the news that these answers are being supplied as open standard data from Democracy Club’s brilliant, volunteer-powered YourNextMP project, as well as our own long running TheyWorkForYou. The aim is to make information easily accessible to anyone who seeks it: we are one of a few data sources to be supplying Google.
We think that adoption of open standards data by companies as big as Google points towards a promising world in which there is a lot more good quality, open standard data on political issues of all kinds.
How was this made possible?
We’re so delighted to see essential civic data being brought to the search engine’s vast numbers of users. It’s all down to the power of open standards and re-usable open source software.
YourNextMP provides feeds via an API, which are available for anyone—large organisations like Google, or individual people like you, perhaps—to use in their own projects.
YourNextMP’s use of the Popolo open standard for government means that the data is clean, machine-readable and easy to slot in anywhere—including Google.
We think a few shout-outs are due. This simple but far-reaching usage of YourNextMP data is only possible because of many good people bringing good things together:
- Democracy Club, and the huge amount of work that this volunteer-run organisation put in to gather and check candidate data
- The many volunteers who gave their time in adding and refining that data
- Popolo, driven by the work of James McKinney
- Poplus, because YourNextMP is based on the people-and-positions storing Component, PopIt
- Google.org, whose funding allowed the creation of Poplus in the first place.
What YourNextMP has achieved
Just as was hoped, YourNextMP data has been used to underpin a variety of projects by many individuals and organisations.
Google may be the latest and the biggest, but we’re no less pleased to see how it has made possible numerous tools to educate or inform the public before the election, as well as powering stories and infographics in several national newspapers. See our previous post for more details on this.
And there’s more. YourNextMP, because it’s built on Open Source code, won’t be going into hibernation until the next election in this country.
The UK voting may be over on May 8, but there are elections all over the world still to come. Our friends in Latin America will be taking the code and adapting it for use in Argentina whose election process starts in August. ¡Viva YourNextMP!
If you’re a teacher, looking to spend the Easter holidays planning lessons, our latest news could save you a little time.
mySociety has collaborated with the Citizenship Foundation on the creation of materials for use in schools.
These activities, written and tested in consultation with teachers, introduce students to concepts of democracy, citizenship and community. A number of the materials also show students how they can use mySociety websites such as WriteToThem, WhatDoTheyKnow or FixMyStreet to bring about change.
We hope that you will find these activities useful. They span years 1 to 13, will fit into a variety of curricula from Politics to Geography, and are completely free to download and use. Access them here – and please do pass the word on to your teacher colleagues.
As I announced recently, I’m going to be stepping down from mySociety and handing over to a new CEO. This diminutive blog post is simply to point out that the job advert is now online, and ready to accept applicants.
I’ve had a lot of fun doing this job, and whilst it can be demanding you’ll never get to work with a better tech team and still get to focus on things that matter. Please tell your nicest and most thoughtful friends to apply.
HassleMe, mySociety’s nifty little reminders site, will continue to send ‘semi-unpredictable’ emails to subscribers – but under new ownership.
Not gone yet
Some canny commenters noticed that we’d tagged HassleMe in our post about closing down some of our sites, but then hadn’t actually included it in the list of projects that were due for closure.
That came about because, although we’d initially added HassleMe to the list of sites headed for the dumpster, there was also some internal debate about saving it.
A small cohort of mySociety staff members were so fond of the site that they wondered whether they might take on its running and maintenance in their own time.
If you have an active Hassle, you’ll have received an email to inform you of this change in ownership (and offer an opt-out, if you’d prefer).
A bit of HassleMe history
HassleMe began as a small piece of script, intended purely for internal mySociety use.
Back in mySociety’s early years, there were only a few members of staff, almost all coders. They knew it was important to keep communicating with the public about what they were doing, but blogging often fell by the wayside in favour of other tasks.
HassleMe was a coders’ solution: a programme that would periodically send an email to a random member of staff and tell them that it was their turn to blog.
Crucially, the reminders were not equally spaced: they would come *about*, but not *exactly* as frequently as you’d set them to. This element of surprise seemed to make the reminders more effective.
Clean the toilet, walk the dog, write a poem
In time, HassleMe was turned into a public service, and people used it for all kinds of things.
Perhaps it was the hassles set to the longest frequencies that were the most interesting. Hassles could be set to recur at frequencies up to ten years, and so people soon realised that they could send messages to a future self. Some of them were prescient:
Are there men on Mars already? What are the plans?
Check back in another ten years with that one, we’re almost there.
Of course, we’re fond of all our projects, past and present, but we’re glad to be able to tell you that HassleMe has a future, under new ownership. If you’d like to set up your own little reminders, or send a letter to your future self, you can do so here.
As mySociety Services continues to develop, we seek a new member to join the team.
We’re looking for a Sales Consultant who will bring their own experience and give us the capacity to discover and explore new leads. As with all mySociety positions, it’s a work-from-home job, but will be based around the Bath/Bristol areas where several of the mySociety Services team are already situated.
mySociety’s commercial work supports our charitable projects, so every new project for a client also does good in the wider world.
Do you know someone who might fit the bill? Send them over to this page where they can see all the details.
We’ve recently secured a small amount of innovation funding from the DfT’s Transport – Technology Research and Innovation Grant and that means that we’re in a position to add new features and functionality to Collideoscope.
Your chance to guide Collideoscope’s development
We’d like to hear your suggestions for new features on Collideoscope—or perhaps you’ve spotted something that could work better.
Please send your suggestions to email@example.com, or use the site’s contact form. We need them in by March 18th, so you have two weeks to gather your thoughts.
What Collideoscope already does
If you’re involved in a cycling collision or near miss—whether you’re the cyclist, a motorist or a pedestrian—you can report it on Collideoscope.
The site sends your report to the relevant local highways authority, and also publishes it online (where there’s the option to remain anonymous).
More than this, though, Collideoscope acts a repository for data on incidents and near misses. In time, anyone will be able to use that data to spot accident hotspots, and the places where accidents are waiting to happen.
This data is available to all, but is especially designed for councils, police forces, road planners, and healthcare providers in their efforts to conceive safer roads, more effective accident deterrents and better emergency care strategies.
And what we’re planning to do
We’ve already committed to a few developments. We’ll be:
- developing better reporting to local councils;
- working with the police to notify them of issues that might require their attention;
- releasing anonymised reports as open data within the next 12 months
…but we’re not planning on stopping there. Your ideas and opinions will guide further development and help us raise further funds for the site.
We thank you all in advance for your time!
Today, after several months of quiet planning, I’m announcing that I will be stepping down as Director of mySociety, although I will remain in the post for the next few months to ensure a smooth handover. An open call for my successor will be published within the next two weeks.
Why now? Quite simply because the coming year will be the most stable period, in terms of effecting a leadership transition, that mySociety has ever had. I want to seize the opportunity to hand over before I start to tire of a job that has been the great privilege of my life.
Thanks to our generous donors and our commercial team’s success we have an unprecedented window of financial security, a terrific team of wide-ranging talents, and a clear three year plan that’s already starting to roll out (I’ll be writing more on this plan, soon). In short, we’ve got a good map, a solid car, and we’ve got enough money for fuel. When could be a better time to change the driver?
For those of you who are our partners, whether charitable or commercial, and wherever you are in the world: don’t worry – this switch isn’t going to change any of our plans to support you and your use of mySociety’s open source technologies. In fact I expect my successor to double down on serving your needs.
And what will I, Tom, do next? I really don’t know – I’ve not got a job lined up, and I’d really like some time off to think about it before I make any big decisions. My main reward – very rare for any founder – is that I get to hand over an organisation that is stable, harmonious, mission-focused and with bags of talent onboard. I greatly look forward to seeing what mySociety’s amazing staff and volunteers achieve next.
Update: the job advertisement for the mySociety CEO position can now be seen here.
Much of mySociety’s work is only possible thanks to generous funding from a number of philanthropic foundations.
Today, we are delighted to announce that we have been awarded a major strategic investment from Omidyar Network totalling up to $3.6m over three years.
This is the third time we’ve been supported by Omidyar Network, and this represents the biggest investment we’ve ever had. Alongside organisations like the Open Society Foundation, Google.org and the Indigo Trust, Omidyar has been central in our transformation from a tiny UK-focused non-profit, to a global social enterprise of nearly 30 staff.
Being supported by Omidyar Network means more than just vital financial support. It means access to their amazing networks of other investees, and advice and guidance from a range of sources. And, also crucial for an organisation that seeks technical excellence, it means the stamp of support from an organisation that ultimately traces its DNA back to the giant internet successes that are eBay and Paypal.
What is the money for?
mySociety’s main ambition, over the next three years, is to help a couple of dozen other organisations, spread around the world, to grow popular citizen empowerment tools that are big enough to really matter to the citizens of a wide range of countries. This means building and growing tools that help people to check up on politicians, demand information and answers, or report and track problems, in hugely varying contexts.
In addition to this, we will continue to maintain and grow the network of users of our technology and support the growing Poplus federation.
It’s a tough goal, and one that will require even more from the organisations we partner with, than from our own colleagues. But the very fact that we can even try to help groups at this scale, is because Omidyar Network enables us to imagine it.
This is a problem we have been warning about for some time. Islington Council were fined £70,000 for a similar incident in 2012. In light of this fresh incident we again urge all public authorities to take care when preparing data for release.
As with the Islington incident, the information was in parts of an Excel spreadsheet that were not immediately visible. It was automatically published on 14th November when Hackney Council sent it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the normal operation of the WhatDoTheyKnow website. All requests sent via the website make it clear that this will happen.
This particular breach involved a new kind of hidden information we hadn’t seen before – the released spreadsheet had previously been linked to another spreadsheet containing the private information, and the private information had been cached in the “Named Range” data in the released spreadsheet.
Although it was not straightforward to access the information directly using Excel, it was directly visible using other Windows programs such as Notepad. It had also been indexed by Google and some of it was displayed in their search previews.
The breach was first hit upon by one of the data subjects searching for their own name. When they contacted us on 25th November to ask about this, one of our volunteers, Richard, realised what had happened. He immediately hid the information from public view and notified the council.
We did not receive any substantive response from the council and therefore contacted them again on 3rd December. The council had investigated the original report but not understood the problem, and were in fact preparing to send a new copy of the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow site, which would have caused the breach to be repeated.
We reiterated what we had found and advised them to consult with IT experts within their organisation. The next day, 4th December, we sent them a further notification of what had happened, copying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As far as we are aware, this was the first time the ICO was informed of the breach.
From our point of view it is very disappointing that these incidents are still happening. Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow are a small fraction of all requests, so it is very likely that this kind of error happens many more times in private responses to requesters, without the public authority ever becoming aware.
Our earlier blog post has several tips for avoiding this problem. These tips include using CSV format to release spreadsheets, and checking that file sizes are consistent with the intended release. Either of these approaches would have averted this particular breach.
We would also urge the ICO to do as much as possible to educate authorities about this issue.
Every general election there are a load of projects that all need the same thing – a nicely formatted, accurate list of the candidates who are standing at the election.
Loads of people need this data – journalists, app builders, campaigners, Wikipedians, everyone.
But the government doesn’t actually publish the lists until right before the election, and when it does the data isn’t the least bit suitable for modern use (think unstructured PDFs and worse). It’s way too little and way too late.
YourNextMP.com is a totally free, open database of candidates, that is made partly from screen scraping and partly from volunteer contributions from people who think that having a single good quality list is a sane idea. It publishes the open data gathered both through a nice clean website, and through a nice modern API. Soon it’ll also provide csv export,too. And it means we can have nice shared identifiers for candidates, meaning greater potential connectivity between election-related journalism, tools, sites and projects run by different people and organisations.
The builders of YourNextMP have also taken steps to ensure accuracy and deter abuse, most strikingly by forcing all new data to be sourced, and keeping nice public logs of all the changes (and who made them).
To be clear, YourNextMP is not a mySociety project. We are just very happy to endorse the idea, and to supply one of our open source tools (PopIt) to help store and share the data in useful ways. Plus some of us have been chipping in in our spare time, for instance by adding data.
How can you help?
There are two main ways:
1) Add data! The main thing needed today, 146 days before the election, is the most basic data on who is known to be standing, today. We think that YourNextMP is probably already the most up to date candidate list out there, despite being very much unfinished.
Additional data, about candidates’ Facebook pages, birth dates and so on, isn’t such a high priority right now. You can help by looking up your constituency on the site, or choosing a random constituency, and just using your best Googling/telephoning skills to find out who’s definitely standing this time.
If you want to chat to other people who are doing the same thing, use the #yournextmp hashtag.
Don’t feel you have to stop when you’ve filled in your own constituency – there are plenty more to complete.
2) Spread the word that a single, high quality, free and shared database of candidates is just A Good Thing that people should support.
Who loves time-wasting? Nobody! What is YourNextMP if not an anti time-wasting project? Nothing! So, please, if you’re planning an election-related project, tell people that YourNextMP is a good idea, and consider letting them use your logo on their site, as a sign of good will.
And if you see someone in your office about to pay for a proprietary database of candidates, why not suggest they give the money to YourNextMP instead?