1. Updates galore

    Delivery by  Niels LinnebergWe’re always quick to shout about it when we’ve added a major new feature to one of our projects, or we’re launching a whole new website.

    All well and good, but mySociety’s developers don’t just roll out the big stuff. Smaller releases are happening all the time, and, as a bunch of them have all come at once, we’ve put together a round-up.

    Oh – and it’s worth saying that your feedback helps us prioritise what we work on. If you’re using any of our software, either as an implementer or a front-end user, and there’s something you think could be better, we hope you’ll drop us a line.

    Here’s what we’ve been doing lately:

    MapIt

    We’ve just released version 1.2 of our postcodes-to-boundaries software.

    The new version adds Django 1.7 and Python 3 support, as well as other minor improvements.

    For the UK, this version now includes October 2014 Boundary-Line support, new OpenStreetMap data, and, crucially for this time of year, Santa’s new postcode (yes, it’s changed, apparently).

    Find MapIt 1.2 here.

    SayIt

    The latest version of our transcript-publishing software, 1.3, adds mainstream support for import from fellow component PopIt (or any Popolo data source). That’s key to making it a truly interoperable Poplus Component.

    SayIt is now also available in Spanish. Additionally, there are improvements around Speakers and Sections, plus this release includes OpenGraph data.

    Many thanks to James of Open North, who contributed improvements to our Akoma Ntoso import.

    Find SayIt 1.3 here.

    PopIt

    Our software for storing, publishing and sharing lists of politicians now has multi-language support in the web-based editing interface as well at the API level.

    We’ve also recently added API support for merging the records of two people, and the API can now be used over SSL/TLS.

    Full details are on the Poplus mailing list.

    Alaveteli

    Release 0.20 of our Freedom of Information platform sees improvements both to the Admin interface and to the front-end user experience.

    Administrators will be pleased to find easier ways to deal with spammy requests for new authorities, and manage the categories and headings that are used to distinguish different types of authority; users should enjoy a smoother path to making a new request.

    Full details can be seen here.

    FixMyStreet

    Version 1.5 of the FixMyStreet platform fully supports the new Long Term Support (LTS) version of Ubuntu, Trusty Tahr 14.04.

    Four new languages – Albanian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, and Ukranian – have been added. There are also some improvements across both admin and the front-end design, and a couple of bugs have been fixed.

    Full details are here.

    Feedback

    Whatever mySociety or Poplus software you’re deploying, we hope these improvements make life easier. Please do stay in touch – your feedback is always useful, whether it’s via the Poplus mailing list (MapIt, PopIt, SayIt), the FixMyStreet community or the Alaveteli community.

    Image: Niels Linneberg (CC)

  2. How to use SayIt to publish transcripts of meetings

    A Scribe from the Book of HoursIn yesterday’s blog post we talked about using our free, Open Source software, SayIt, to create collections of statements, like our collections of Party speeches.

    That’s one use of SayIt – but we actually built it with a slightly different aim in mind: the storing and publication of transcripts.

    SayIt really does transform transcripts – so, if you regularly take minutes of meetings at work, or in another capacity, it’s worth a look.

    That’s easy for us to say, we know. But if you play with it for half an hour, we think you’ll see the benefits.

    Making online transcripts better for your readers

    Traditionally, transcripts of meetings are published as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents. The information is there; you’ve done your duty in making it available – but do you ever wonder if it’s really working for your readers?

    For example, let’s say you are a clerk in the local council, and you routinely publish transcripts from council meetings online.

    The chances are that residents access your transcripts when they have an interest in one specific topic. Typically your meetings cover many subjects, and readers have to wade through pages to find the part they want. On SayIt, searching is very easy, even for people who are not very familiar with internet technology.

    Search on SayIt

    Or suppose that you are a member of a pressure group, and you’ve transcribed a local community meeting to share on your website. You might want to highlight particular parts of the meeting. With SayIt, you can link to individual statements, so it’s simple to share them by email, social media, or on your website.

    A SayIt speech is linkable in context

     

    See some examples

    If you’d like to see how your meeting transcripts will look, once they’ve been published on SayIt, have a browse through these two examples:

     

    Getting started

    SayIt sign-upReady to have a go? Here’s how to start your own SayIt site:

    1. Go to this page and sign up.

    We’ll ask you for:

    • Part of the URL (web address) for your site – for example, if you choose “TotnesCouncil”, your new URL will be http://TotnesCouncil.sayit.mysociety.org. Note that URLs can’t contain spaces or non-regular characters.
    • A title: this will appear in the top bar of your website. Don’t sweat too much: you can always change this later. In this example we might choose “Totnes Council meetings”.
    • A description (optional): this is a good place to explain the purpose of your site at a little more length. You might write something like “Transcripts from local council meetings in Totnes, UK, 2014 onwards”. Again, you will have the chance to change this later if you like.

    2. Confirm your email address

    If this is the first time you have used SayIt, you will need to input your email address, then go to your email and find our automated message so you can click on the confirmation link.

    SayIt congratulations

    Keep a note of your password, as you will need it whenever you want to edit your site.

    Inputting transcripts

    SayIt is currently in Beta – that’s to say, it’s functional and live, but we’re still developing it.

    In this phase, you can manually type (or copy and paste) each statement of your transcript in. Soon, it will also be possible to import a document of the entire meeting, as long as it’s in the required format – if you have a lot of existing transcripts and you’d like to try this, get in touch and we may be able to help.

    In this post, we’ll look at the manual input of speeches.

    Manual input

    You will need either a copy of your transcript, or a recording of the meeting you wish to transcribe.

    Here’s how to begin:

    1. Click on the ‘add your first statement’ button.

    Add your first speech to SayIt

     2. You can paste, or type, your content directly into the box marked “text”.

    Adding content to SayItIn the fields below the text box, you have the option to add more details about this piece of text. None of these fields are mandatory, but all of them add functionality or information to your transcript:

    • Date and time If you know these, they are useful because they will help SayIt to order your speeches chronologically. Don’t worry if you don’t know them, though – SayIt automatically arranges speeches in the order that you input them, unless the timestamps tell it otherwise.
    • Event and location What sort of meeting was it, and where did it happen? For our example, we might input “Totnes Town Council Meeting” and “Guildhall, Totnes”.
    • Speaker Enter a name, and then click on the underlined text to add it to your database. As with all text fields on SayIt, once you have added it, it will be offered as an auto-fill option for subsequent speeches. Attaching names to your speeches also means that SayIt can do clever things, like display everything said by one speaker.

    If you are not sure who spoke, don’t worry – you can leave this field blank, or enter a name such as ‘Unknown’.

    • Section Meetings often have distinct sections: an introductory period, apologies for absences, following up on agreed actions, etc. Or you might use Section to identify items on the agenda. If you use the Section field, SayIt will automatically arrange your transcript into groups of associated content.
    • Source URL If you are taking speeches from a source such as a news report or another website, you can add the web address so that interested people can see it in context.
    • Title and tags: These enable you to tag your content – for example, you might want to tag everything to do with road-building, and everything to do with tourism, et cetera. That means that your readers will be able to find the sections of the content they are most interested in.

    When you’ve added everything you want to for this part of speech, click “Save speech”.

    Well done! You’ve just added your first speech to SayIt.

    You can go back and edit it at any time – and that applies to every field.

    A SayIt speech

    3. Continue adding speeches.

    As you do so, SayIt will be making connections and organising things neatly.

    Tip: If you click ‘add another speech like this’ then fields such as ‘event and location’ will automatically be filled for you – you can overwrite them if they are incorrect for your next speech.

    Click on ‘Speakers’ to see an icon for everyone you’ve added:

    Speakers screen on SayIt

    – and click on any one of those icons to see just their speeches:

    One person's speeches on SayIt

    Clicking on ‘Speeches’ in the top bar will show you every speech you’ve input; if you used Sections, they will be divided up neatly:

    Speeches on SayItClick on any of those sections to see its content:

    speeches on SayIt

    You’ve done it

    So there you are, now you’ve seen what SayIt can do – we hope you liked it enough to consider using it in the future. Remember, it’s completely free.

    Let us know if you hit any problems, or if there are features you’d like us to add. SayIt is in active development at the moment, so your feedback will help shape it. We’d also love to hear if you are using it.

    Importing content

    Manual inputting is clearly only practical for shorter meetings (or people who have plenty of time on their hands!). As mentioned above, we’ll be adding the ability to import your transcripts.

    They will need to be in the format that SayIt accepts, which is Akoma Ntoso, a schema for Parliamentary document types – you can read more about that here.

    If you already have documents in Akoma Ntoso, get in touch and we can get them imported for you.

    Hosting

    You can host SayIt on your own servers, but for beginner users it’s quicker and easier to start by creating a version that we host, as described in the steps above.

    If you decide later on that you want to host the content yourself, and perhaps embed it on your own website, that option will remain open to you.

    SayIt is a Poplus Component – open-source software that is designed to underpin digital democracy projects. It can stand alone, or work with other Poplus Components. The source code is also available for developers to modify and improve, so if you are already imagining more ambitious ways that you might use SayIt on your website, let us know.

    Other ways to use SayIt

    We’ve recently written about:

    Using SayIt to make collections of statements.

    Using SayIt to store interviews from your research project

    We’ll also be looking at the following soon:

    – Collaborating with other users on SayIt transcripts

    Image: A scribe from the Book of Hours (public domain)

  3. Filling a gap in the public archive: missing party speeches, now online again

    Archive of flowers by Klaus Riesner

    Party Conference season is upon us again, and, with it, a new set of fine promises and rhetorical flourishes, as each party’s top dogs take the podium. But what happens to those pledges, vows and forecasts once the banners are taken down and the party faithful turn for home?

    Cast your mind back to November 2013, and you may recall that there was bit of a fuss about the fact that the Conservative party had removed old speeches from their website.

    Not just that, but they’d also effectively erased them from the places where you can commonly find retired internet content… unless you really know where to look.

    Was it a sinister rewriting of history, or a simple spring clean of elderly content? Well, that depends who you believe – but here at mySociety, we do think that you should be able to hold political parties to account for promises they made in the past.

    Not only that, but we happen to have a splendid tool for publishing the spoken word: SayIt.

    So we thought we’d track down that missing content and put it online for anyone to search and browse. And because we are a wholly non-partisan organisation, we did the same for Labour.

    Take a look at that content: Conservative speeches and Labour speeches – and do let us know if you find anything particularly interesting!

    Note: we’re not intending to update these collections regularly – it’s a one-off initiative, designed to fill a gap in the public archive. And within the confines of this project, we’ve only published Labour and Conservative speeches.

    On the other hand, if you’re interested in setting up similar sites for the other parties, or even taking over these ones, SayIt is very simple for anyone to use: just get in touch.

    Image by Klaus Riesner (CC)
  4. A Federation Is Born

    Poplus conference

     

    The right conference, held at the right time and attended by people with common problems, can sometimes give birth to whole new organisations. I was at OpenTech when the Open Rights Group was born, and on a grander scale the Red Cross and the UN both featured conferences at catalytic moments in their early history.

    Last week in Santiago, Chile, a conference took place that felt like exactly such a moment – PoplusCon. People from 27 countries spent two days talking about their shared goals and desires, and from it the skeleton of a new federation – the Poplus federation – started to take shape.

    Not everyone at the conference worked on identical projects, or had identical skills. Some people were specialists in tracking suspicious relationships (‘This guy’s brother-in-law gets all the contracts’), others were big into training journalists how to use FOI, others specialised in making important datasets more accessible to members of the public, others still were journalists, skilled at constructing stories. But one theme emerged pretty quickly – people wanted better, easier, more reliable ways of sharing knowledge and sharing technology, so that they could all save time, effort and money.

    What could a new federation do for you?

    And so that is how the conversation turned to the idea of founding a new federation – an organisation that could serve the needs of many different groups without being run or owned by any one of them. In a brainstorm session about what people wanted from a new federation, the following ideas were raised:

    • Running events to facilitate more sharing of ideas and tech
    • Publishing stories about successful and unsuccessful projects, especially where those stories need to cross language barriers to spread
    • Vetting and endorsing data standards
    • Access to a community of peers (for sharing experience, encouragement, tips and tricks etc)
    • Resources for projects that are running short
    • Help and advice on making projects sustainable
    • Certification of what counts as a Poplus Component
    • Where groups face common challenges, perhaps coordinate advocacy
    • Organisation of mentorship, exchanges and placements

    This wish list is clearly far more than a nascent organisation could arrange in the near future, but there was some informal voting and the top priorities fairly quickly emerged. People really wanted access to their peers, and to the stories that they tell. And there was a strong wish to see Poplus Components become more official, and better explained.

    Getting Real – Getting Involved

    But a list is just a list without people willing to make it real. And so without doubt the most awesome thing that took place at PoplusCon was that eight people immediately volunteered to form a committee that would bring Poplus into being, representing half a dozen countries in different parts of the world.

    This committee, which is completely open for anyone to join, will be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to agree on a plan for the first 12 months of the Poplus federation. It will work out how the new-born federation should govern itself, and what the first things that this entirely volunteer-run group should be doing. It’s an exciting, fragile moment and I’ve not seen anything like it in my ten-odd years working in this field. There’s no boss, no leader, just some people trying to build something of shared value.

    Right now there are no rules, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy. In fact there’s nothing but some hope, enthusiasm and some shared dreams of a stronger community of individuals and organisations.

    I hope that if you read this and think that Poplus sounds cool, that you’ll consider joining the committee too. All you have to do is join the mailing list and ask where and when to show up. If you come to online committee meetings a couple of times, you’re de facto one of the people who runs Poplus. What happens next is – quite literally – down to you.

    Image: Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente

  5. Join us, as we set the agenda for collaborative coding

    What are your plans for late April? If you’re a civic coder, a campaigner or activist from anywhere in the world, hold everything: we want to see you in Santiago, Chile, for the first international PoplusCon.

    Poplus is a project which aims to bring together those working in the digital democracy arena – groups or individuals – so that we can share our code and thus operate more efficiently.

    We’re right at the beginning of what we hope will grow into a worldwide initiative. If you’d like to get involved, now is the time.

    Together with Poplus’ co-founders, Ciudadano Inteligente, we will be running a two-day conference in Santiago on the 29th and 30th of April. It is free to attend, and we can even provide travel grants for those who qualify.

    There’s lots more information over on the Poplus website.
    poplus

  6. Introducing SayIt: a Poplus Component to bring transcript publication into the modern world

    Dictaphone Operator, via Wikimedia CommonsTranscripts – the written records of who says what in a conversation – aren’t sexy.

    However, they can be very important, or even historic. They can reveal big plans that will affect lots of people, and they are a basic requirement of political accountability.

    But the way in which transcripts are made available online today doesn’t reflect this importance. They tend to be published as hundreds of PDFs, and look more or less like they were made in the 1950s.

    We think that the people who are affected by the decisions and plans announced in transcribed meetings deserve better.

    What is SayIt?

    SayIt screenshot featuring Sienna Miller

    SayIt is an open source tool for publishing speeches, discussions and dialogues, simply and clearly, online. Search functionality is built in, you can link to any part of a transcript, and the whole thing works nicely on mobile devices.

    SayIt can be used either as a hosted service, or it can be built directly into your own website, as a Django app. Here are some examples of what it looks like in its hosted, standalone form:

    However, SayIt’s main purpose is to be built into other sites and apps.  We don’t have a live demo of this today, but one of our international partners will soon be launching a new Parliamentary Monitoring site which uses SayIt to publish years of parliamentary transcripts.

    SayIt is also 100% open data compatible, and we use a cut-down version of the Akoma Ntoso open standard for data import.

    What isn’t SayIt?

    SayIt is:

    • Not a site full of data curated and uploaded by mySociety – it’s a tool for redeployment all over the net. We’ll host deployments where that’s helpful to people, though.

    • Not primarily about Britain – whilst we’re a social enterprise based in the UK, SayIt has been built with an international perspective. We hope it will serve the needs of people watching politicians in places like Kenya and South Africa.

    • Not solely a mySociety project – it’s actually an international collaboration, via the Poplus network (see more below).

    • Not (yet) a tool to replace Microsoft Word as the way you write down transcripts in the first place. This is coming as we move from Alpha to Beta, though.

    Why are we building SayIt?

    SayIt is one of the Poplus Components. Poplus is a global collaboration of groups that believe it is currently too difficult and expensive to build effective new digital tools to help citizens exert power over institutions.

    Poplus Components are loosely joined tools, mostly structured as web services, that can be used to radically decrease the development time of empowerment sites and apps.

    SayIt is the newest component, and aims to reduce the difficulty and cost of launching services that contain transcripts – in particular websites that allow people to track the activities of politicians. Using SayIt or other Poplus components you can build your site in whatever language and framework suits your wishes, but save time by using the components to solve time-consuming problems for you.

    The founders of Poplus are FCI in Chile, and mySociety in the UK – and we are hoping that the launch of SayIt will help grow the network. The project has been made possible by a grant from Google.org, while early iterations were aided by the Technology Strategy Board.

    Interested in publishing transcripts via SayIt? Here’s what to do…

    Having taken a look at the demos, we hope at least some of you are thinking ‘I know of some transcripts that would be better if published like this’.

    If you are interested, then there are two approaches we’d recommend:

    • If you’re a coder, or if you have access to technical skills, read about how to convert your data into the open standard we use. Then talk to us about how to get this data online.

    • If you don’t have access to technical skills,  get in touch about what you’re interested in publishing, and we’ll explore the options with you.

    Note to coders – We’ve not yet spent a lot of time making SayIt easy to deploy locally, so we know it may be a challenge. We’re here to help.

    Where might SayIt help?

    SayIt comes from a desire to publish the speeches of politicians. But we know that there are many other possible uses, which is why we built the Shakespeare demo.

    We think SayIt could be useful for publishing and storing transcripts of:

    • Local council meetings

    • Court hearings

    • Election hustings

    • Academic research interviews and focus groups

    • Academic seminars, lectures, etc

    • Plays

    • Market research focus groups

    • Historic archives of events such as a coronation or key debate

    These are just a few of our ideas, but we bet you have others – please do tell us in the comments below.

    What’s coming next

    At the moment, SayIt only covers publishing transcripts, not creating them. Needless to say, this lack of an authoring interface is a pretty big gap, but we are launching early (as an Alpha) because we want to know how you’ll use it, what features you want us to build, and what doesn’t work as well as we anticipated. We also want to see if we can attract other people to co-develop the code with us, which is the real spirit of the Poplus network.

    We’ll also be adding the ability to subscribe to alerts so that you’ll get an email every time a keyword occurs (just as you can on our other websites, such as FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow). This feature will come into its own for ongoing series of transcripts such as council meetings.

    Image by Columbia Phonograph Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  7. A big thankyou to Google.org – fabulous funding news

     

     

    Growth by KayVee INC

    We’re starting the year with some really wonderful news: Google.org is granting us a fantastic $1.6m, to be spent over two years.

    Clearly, this is a significant sum of money, which will really turbo-charge our efforts to build technologies to help groups like mySociety in countries around the world. 

    We will be using the money to provide developers with open source technologies to help them to more easily and quickly launch new civic apps and services. We will also be working with lots of other groups to promote greater knowledge and technology sharing amongst civil society groups of all kinds, especially in the accountability sector.

    What’s the problem being tackled?

    Currently, it can take a great deal of work to launch even relatively simple sites or apps with civic purposes, because the sector is not rich with mature, sector-specific tools and technologies. This high barrier to getting started has a bad effect on the range and strength of popular, impactful civic sites and apps online, globally.

    Working with international partners we plan to develop some common, open source components that will reduce the effort required to launch new services in a broad range of areas: including accountability, legal, environmental, political, and more.

    mySociety will work with local partners in various targeted regions to help those partners make the greatest possible benefit from using these new, common, collaboratively-developed open source components. And we’ll be working to help them contribute back, both in terms of shared code and shared knowledge.

    The project will also develop new approaches to bringing together the global civic-technology community, so that it can collaborate more easily on new projects.

    We’re really excited to see where this project will take us next – and we are very grateful to Google.org for the increased opportunities their funding brings us.

    Photo by KayVee INC (CC)

  8. Looking back: our experience of the Google Summer of Code

    Summer may seem like a long time ago, but despite the cold outside, we’ve been looking back over our participation in Google’s Summer of Code project. It’s almost enough to warm us up!

    This post is an attempt to record the process from our point of view. We hope it will be useful for other organisations considering participating next year, and for students who want to know more about how the scheme works.

    What is Google Summer of Code?

    It’s a programme sponsored by Google’s philanthropic arm, giving students the chance to experience real-life coding on open source software.

    The scheme is open to students all over the world, who are then paired up with open source organisations like us. The students gain paid work experience and mentoring; the organisations gain willing workers and some fresh new perspectives; the world gains some more open source code to use or develop further.

    Everyone’s a winner, basically.

    The beginnings

    2012 was our first year on the programme: once we had been accepted on the scheme, we were given two student slots – the maximum allowed for a first-time organisation.

    Given mySociety’s wide suite of codebases, there were several projects that could have benefited. We listed all our ideas, and let people apply for the ones they found appealing.

    Goodness, there were a lot of applicants! It was very heartening to discover that there is such an enthusiastic community of young coders all around the world – even if it did take us a long time to sift through them all and make our choices.

    You might remember our post back in May, when we announced that we’d made our choices. We were delighted to get working with Dominik from Germany and Chetan from India.

    The project

    As things turned out, our students ended up working on a project that wasn’t even on our original list: PopIt, our super-easy ‘people and positions’ software.

    That’s because once we spoke to our chosen students, we realised they had the skills that could really help us forge ahead with this project – and once we discussed it with them, they were keen. So PopIt it was.

    Logistics

    Germany and India are a bit of a commute away, but fortunately development work can be managed remotely. We know this particularly well at mySociety: our core team work from home and are scattered across the UK.

    The only difference here was the 6+ hour time difference between us and India: it was important to be rigorous about checking in at times when Chetan would be awake!

    We communicated via IRC (instant chat), email, and occasionally Skype, and it all worked well.

    Edmund, the team member chosen to be mentor, broke the required tasks down into big pieces so that the students would have realistic work units of several days each.

    What was achieved

    PopIt is primarily a tool for helping people create and run parliamentary monitoring websites (like TheyWorkForYou) with minimal coding knowledge/effort, though we anticipate that it will have many other uses too.

    Our students spent the first half of the summer learning and improving the PopIt codebase. Once they were confident in it, they created their own sites using PopIt as a datasource to test the API, and, hopefully, create a valuable reference resource for the community.

    Dominik added a migration tool to PopIt, which lets you upload data as a CSV. This means that you can start a site with a database of names, positions and dates at its heart – within seconds.

    His test site was a professors’ database (the code is here). Dom also wrote some helpful posts on the dev blog like this one.

    Chetan created an image proxy that lets us serve images in a smart way that makes sense for APIs. His test site was for Indian representatives (here’s the code).

    Neither site is being maintained now, which just confirms that it is harder to run a site than to start it. This is not a failing, though. The creation of these sites, along with Chetan and Dom’s feedback, helped us understand where improvements needed to be made. In the course of one summer, PopIt became much more mature.

    Looking back on the Summer of Code

    Edmund attended a follow-up ‘mentors’ summit’ at the Googleplex in California – he found it very helpful to compare notes with other organisations and find out what had worked best for them all, and he made some good contacts too.

    Assuming we get the chance again, would we participate in 2013? Our experience was very positive, but as yet we are undecided, purely because of the fluid nature of our workflow: we don’t yet know whether time and resources will permit.

    Obviously, we have enjoyed great benefits from the scheme, but that has depended on quite a bit of input from our side, and we need to be sure that we can ensure that happens again.

    Edmund has compiled a list of advice, from the practical (ask students to treat the placement like a full-time job; test coding skills before acceptance) to the desirable (a weekly blog post from participants; make sure you over-estimate the time you’ll spend mentoring). If you’re thinking of participating next year, he’d be happy to pass on his tips for ensuring that you, and your assigned students, get the best out of the Google Summer of Code. Just drop him a line.

  9. Unofficial Transcripts: mySociety is seeking councillors, council officers, local activists and hyperlocal bloggers interested in Hansards at the local level

    One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.

    This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.

    No Local Hansards

    Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.

    At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.

    We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.

    The State of the Art Still Needs You

    First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.

    We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.

    But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.

    It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable

    Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.

    Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.

    Get in touch

    The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.

    And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.

  10. New MapIt Global: An Administrative Boundaries Web Service for the World

    Introducing MapIt Global

    All of us at mySociety love the fact that there are so many interesting new civic and democratic websites and apps springing up across the whole world. And we’re really keen to do what we can to help lower the barriers for people trying to build successful sites, to help citizens everywhere.

    Today mySociety is unveiling MapIt Global, a new Component designed to eliminate one common, time-consuming task that civic software hackers everwhere have to struggle with: the task of identifying which political or administrative areas cover which parts of the planet.

    As a general user this sort of thing might seem a bit obscure, but you’ve probably indirectly used such a service many times. So, for example, if you use our WriteToThem.com to write to a politician, you type in your postcode and the site will tell you who your politicians are. But this website can only do this because it knows that your postcode is located inside a particular council, or constituency or region.

    Today, with the launch of MapIt Global , we are opening up a boundaries lookup service that works across the whole world. So now you can lookup a random point in Russia or Haiti or South Africa and find out about the administrative boundaries that surround it. And you can browse and inspect the shapes of administrative areas large and small, and perform sophisticated lookups like “Which areas does this one border with?”. And all this data is available both through an easy to use API, and a nice user interface.

    We hope that MapIt Global will be used by coders and citizens worldwide to help them in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Our own immediate use case is to use it to make installations of the FixMyStreet Platform much easier.

    Thanks OpenStreetMap!

    We’re able to offer this service only because of the fantastic data made available by the amazing OpenStreetMap volunteer community, who are constantly labouring to make an ever-improving map of the whole world. You guys are amazing, and I hope that you find MapIt Global to be useful to your own projects.

    The developers who made it possible were Mark Longair, Matthew Somerville and designer Jedidiah Broadbent. And, of course, we’re also only able to do this because the Omidyar Network is supporting our efforts to help people around the world.

     

    From Britain to the World

    For the last few years we’ve been running a British version of the MapIt service to allow people running other websites and apps to work out what council or constituency covers a particular point – it’s been very well used. We’ve given this a lick of paint and it is being relaunched today, too.

    MapIt Global is also the first of The Components, a series of interoperable data stores that mySociety will be building with friends across the globe. Ultimately our goal is to radically reduce the effort required to launch democracy, transparency and government-facing sites and apps everywhere.

    If you’d like to install and run the open source software that powers MapIt on your own servers, that’s cool too – you can find it on Github.

    About the Data

    The data that we are using is from the OpenStreetMap project, and has been collected by thousands of different people. It is licensed for free use under their open license. Coverage varies substantially, but for a great many countries the coverage is fantastic.

    The brilliant thing about using OpenStreetMap data is that if you find that the boundary you need isn’t included, you can upload or draw it direct into Open Street Map, and it will subsequently be pulled into MapIt Global.  We are planning to update our database about four times a year, but if you need boundaries adding faster, please talk to us.

    If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how we built MapIt Global, see this blog post from Mark Longair.

    Commercial Licenses and Local Copies

    MapIt Global and UK are both based on open source software, which is available for free download. However, we charge a license fee for commercial usage of the API, and can also set up custom installs on virtual servers that you can own. Please drop us a line for any questions relating to commercial use.

     Feedback

    As with any new service, we’re sure there will be problems that need sorting out. Please drop us an email, or tweet us @mySociety.