It’ll shortly be the end of the line for HearFromYourMP, so let’s take a little time to look back on why we made it, and what we learned along the way.
HearFromYourMP was one of mySociety’s earliest projects, launched in November 2005. As we said back then, we wanted to “improve long term relationships between MPs and constituents by giving both an easy, trusted way of discussing local issues”.
In other words, it was, like many a mySociety project, an attempt to break down the barriers between the ordinary citizen and their elected representatives—even if, as with a large percentage of the population, they didn’t know who those representatives were.
You may be wondering why the world needed such a thing. Did MPs really need a way to talk to constituents? After all, that’s one of their key duties, and surely one that they’d already got down pat.
To really understand the context into which HearFromYourMP was born, you have to consider that this was fairly early in the history of the internet. Twitter hadn’t been invented, and Facebook was just for US college students. It certainly wasn’t a given that every MP would have a website, and it was more than likely that they contacted their constituents on paper rather than via email.
HearFromYourMP, among other things, acted as a gentle way to encourage MPs to join the 21st century, or, as it was known back then, (cue futurist music) cyberspace.
Here’s the clever bit
One of HearFromYourMP’s strong points was the ingenious way in which it encouraged MPs to commit to its use. When a user visited the homepage, they saw this message:
If you enter your details, we’ll add you to a queue of other people in your constituency. When enough have signed up, your MP will get sent an email. It’ll say “25 of your constituents would like to hear what you’re up to. Hit reply to let them know”. If they don’t reply, nothing will happen, until your MP gets a further email which says there are now 50, then 75, 100, 150 — until it is nonsensical not to reply and start talking.
And 5,701 users did just that, even before the official site launch.
In other words, HearFromYourMP gathered a ready audience first, rather than assuming that we needed every MP to be on there before we could open it to the general public, which might have been the conventional way of doing things.
And even though there was no compulsion for MPs to sign up—beyond that niggling email in their inbox, telling them that people were waiting to hear from them—they did. By January 2007, there were almost 100 MPs on board.
“That’s one sixth in a year, and I’d be surprised if any other new technology has been taken up at that rate,”
said mySociety Director Tom Steinberg at the time, in an interview with the Guardian. And, talking now about constituents, of which, by that time, 28,000 had signed up:
“At this rate, in two to three years’ time, there will be as many people signed up to hear from their MP as are signed up members of the Lib Dems.”
Apparently the Liberal Democrat membership currently stands at 44,576 while, as I write, admittedly some five years beyond that two to three year forecast, there are 230,455 constituents registered on HearFromYourMP.
This kind of usage of ‘the crowd’ went on to become a bit of a mySociety hallmark, and something that you can see to a greater or lesser extent in most of our following projects.
Newsletters tend to be a one-way conversation, with the MP broadcasting the wonderful things he or she has done lately.
Conversely, HearFromYourMP was built to encourage debate: users could respond to the mail-outs. Everything remained accountable, since the conversations were published on the site for anyone to read. To prevent abuse, users could only comment on an MP’s message if they were signed up to receive mails within that MP’s constituency.
To the present day
Today, as we have seen, over 230,000 people are signed up to hear from their MPs. Over half of all MPs have used the service to send out a newsletter.
Meanwhile, 78% of the UK population can’t name their representative in Parliament*.
And once they’ve found out, there are now many channels via which an MP can engage with their constituents—some, like Twitter and Facebook, where exchanges can be held in public.
We’ll be sorry to see HearFromYourMP go, but we’re glad that it played the part it did. Thank you to all its users, whether you’re a constituent or an MP.
We recently shared news of some substantial funding from Omidyar Network, and the goals which that funding will help us to achieve.
Those goals are quite ambitious, and we’re going to have to focus hard on a number of core projects to meet them. Consequently, we’ve made the hard decision to let go of a few of our other sites; sites which need time and attention, but which won’t help us towards meeting those key aims.
A bit of background
mySociety has built loads of websites during its time: it’s the way we’ve historically worked. When we started up, we just wanted to make cool civic sites that would do useful things; if we could get the funding, and someone was willing to build them, we’d go for it.
All of the projects we launched were based on pretty sound ideas; all of them strove to empower people and open up democracy in one way or another.But, as we’ve become a more mature organisation, with responsibilities towards our partners and funders, that scattergun approach doesn’t fly any more. Running a website, no matter how small and self-sufficient it is, requires some investment, in terms of maintenance, user support, and updating, and sadly, right now we can’t maintain everything to a level that keeps it useful and functional for users.
Over a decade since mySociety first started, some of those early sites have proved their worth. They’ve grown and matured with us. Here in the UK, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has over 400,000 visitors a month, and sites like TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WriteToThem have become UK institutions in their own right.
Alaveteli, the software which underpins WhatDoTheyKnow, has been adopted in 21 countries; the FixMyStreet Platform is being used in 11, with both set to increase as we concentrate on reaching out to international partners over the next few years.
These projects are core to our Omidyar Network funding and the results we’ve promised to deliver from it.
Goodbye to these
Along the way, though, there have been some projects which, for one reason or another, have not gained quite as much traction.
You might say they were before their time: Pledgebank, for example, predates Groupon, Kickstarter and similar pledging concepts.
In some cases, the world moved on: most MPs now have their own channels for contacting constituents online, so HearFromYourMP isn’t quite as vital.
In others, we simply don’t have the necessary resources that the project needs: FixMyTransport is a good example of that.
It’s been a difficult decision, but if we are to focus on our targets for the coming years, we can no longer afford to dedicate ourselves to these sites. To that end, we’ll shortly be retiring:
In February, Pledgebank will stop accepting new pledges, although users will still be able to sign up for existing ones until the end of June. We’ll be emailing all owners of pledges to let them know that the site will close at that time.
From the 1st of March, you’ll no longer be able to create a report on FixMyTransport. If you are running an active campaign or problem report, we’ll email to let you know of the site’s closure, which is planned for the end of June.
MPs can continue to use HearFromYourMP to send newsletters to their constituents, but we’ll be letting them know that the service will be retired before the General Election.
In February, ScenicOrNot will be mothballed so that users can no longer rate photographs. We’ll be keeping the leaderboard intact and developers will still be able to use the site’s data.
It’s not without regret that we’ll be saying goodbye to these sites – each and every one of them is based on a sound idea that fell well within mySociety’s remit to provide civic and democratic digital tools.
Like most mySociety sites, the code of all of the above is Open Source and you are welcome to pick it up and adapt it to your needs. We’d be delighted if there was interest, from other individuals or groups, in running something similar, based on our code.
Over the last weekend of November 2009 a group of 21 mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees went to a house outside of Bristol to wrestle with the question of what mySociety should build over the next 12 months. This was the fourth time we’ve done it, and these meetings have become a crucial part of our planning. This year, we were talking not just about what new features to add to our current sites, but also about the possibility of building an entirely new website for the first time in a couple of years. The discussions were lively and passionate because we know we have a lot to live up to: not only is our last major new site (WhatDoTheyKnow) likely to cross the 1 million unique visitors threshold this year, but we understood that there were people and organisations who weren’t there who would be counting on us to set the bar high.
A chunk of the weekend involved vetting the 227 project ideas that were proposed via our Call for Proposals. I’m going to write a separate post on our thoughts about that process, but if you look at the list below you may spot things that were submitted in that call.
One nice innovation that helped us whittle down our ideas from unmanageable to manageable numbers was a pairwise comparison game to help us prioritise ideas, build custom for the occasion by the wonderful and statistically talented Mark Longair. In other words, we used the technique that powers KittenWar.com to help decide our key strategic priorities for the next year: after all , if we don’t, who will?
By the end of the weekend we had not battened everything down – there are too many uncertainties around how much time we will have, and some key ideas that need more speccing. However, we were able to put various things into different buckets, marked according to size and degree of certainty. So here goes:
1. Things which were decided at the last retreat, which we are definitely building, and which (mostly) need doing before next year’s stuff starts getting built
- A top level page for each bill on TheyWorkForYou
- Future business (ie the calendar) for events in the House of Commons, including a full set of alerting options.
- Video clips on MP pages on TheyWorkForYou
- Epicly ambitious election data gathering and quiz building with the lovely volunteers at DemocracyClub
2. Small new things that we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus
- Publish a standard that councils can use to post problems like potholes in their databases to FixMyStreet and other similiar sites.
- Template requests in WhatDoTheyKnow so that users are strongly encouraged to put in requests that are well structured.
- After the next general election, email new MPs with various bits of info of interest to them including their new login to HearFromYourMP, their page on TheyWorkForYou, explanation of how WriteToThem protects them from spam and abuse, a double check that their contact details are correct, and a introduction to the fact that we record their correspondance responsiveness and voting records.
- Add to WhatDoTheyKnow descriptions about what kind of public authority a specific entity is (ie ‘school’, ‘council’) and the information they are likely to hold if FOIed.
- Show divisions (parliamentary votes) properly on debate pages on TheyWorkForYou, ie show the results of a vote on the same page as the debate where the issue was discussed, with full party breakdowns on each division.
- Add “How to benefit from this site” page on TheyWorkForYou, inspired by OpenCongress.org
- Help Google index TheyWorkForYou faster by creating a sitemap.xml file that is dynamically updated.
- Using the data we expect to have from DemocracyClub’s volunteers, send a press release about every new MP and to all relevent local newspapers
- Incorporate a council GeoRSS problem feed into FMS
3. Slighty more time consuming things we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus
- 1 day per month developer time that customer support guru Debbie Kerr gets to allocate as she see fit.
- Premium account feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to hide requests so that journalists and bloggers can still get scoops and then share their correspondance later.
- Add Select Committees to TheyWorkForYou, including email alerts on calls for evidence.
- Take professional advice on how to handle PR around the election
4. Much more time consuming things and things around which there is less consensus. NB – We do not currently have the resources to do everything on this list next year – it is an ambitious target list.
- Primary New site: TBA in a new post
- Add a new queue feature to WhatDoTheyKnow so that users can write requests, then table them for comments from other users and expert volunteers before they are sent to the public authority
- Relaunch our Volunteer tasks page on our sites, keep it populated with new tasks, specifically allocate resources to handhold potential volunteers. Allocate time to see if any of the ideas that we didn’t build could be parcelled into volunteer tasks.
- Secondary New site (if we have a lot more time than we expect): Exploit extraordinary richness of Audit Comission local government target data in a TheyWorkForYou-like fashion.
- FixMyStreet to become international with a) maps for most of the world b) easy to follow instructions explaining how to supply mySociety with the required data to us to enable us to turn on FixMyStreet in non UK countries or areas. This data would includ ie gettext powered text translation files, shapefiles of administrative boundaries, and lists of contact data.
- Add votes and proceedings to TheyWorkForYou (where they reveal statutory instrument titles that are not debated but where the law gets changed anyway)
- Carry out usability testing on TheyWorkForYou with then help of volunteer Joe Lanman – then implement changes recommended during a development process taking up to 10 days.
- Add to TheyWorkForYou questions that have been tabled in the house of commons but which haven’t been answered yet.
- Add a new interface for just councils so that they can say if a problem on FixMyStreet has changed status.
Phew. And that’s not even counting the projects we hope to help with in Central and Eastern Europe, our substantial commercial work, or the primary new site idea, which will be blogged in Part 2.
We updated our boundary and postcode database at the start of the week (apart from two wards in Scotland that I misspelled and updated on Tuesday, sorry), so hopefully everyone in the country can contact their representatives at WriteToThem or have their postcode recognised on HearFromYourMP or TheyWorkForYou. This applies especially to a small number of councils, such as Bradford, for which the boundaries had completely changed at their last election and which we were unable to get working until now – apologies for the inconvenience.
Related to this, and for interest, on 1st April, a number of councils are being abolished as their county councils become unitary authorities. The district councils within Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire, and Cheshire/Chester all disappear – Cheshire becomes two unitary authorities called Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East. Lastly, Bedford borough council becomes a unitary authority, and Central Bedfordshire council covers the area previously covered by Mid Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire.
Parliamentary boundaries in England and Northern Ireland are changing, but these do not take effect until the next general election – until then, your constituency and MP remains the same.
TheyWorkForYou doesn’t currently include EDMs for a couple of reasons:
1. They’re clearly less important to what Parliament does than Bills and committees, and are way down the priorities list as a consequence. We’ve nearly finished the process of adding bill committees, but we need the help of everyone who can lend a hand to overcome the opposition of senior unelected officials to get Bills published in a way we and others can use. If you haven’t already, please join the Free Our Bills campaign.
2. We are very tightly constrained by the amount of money we have, and we barely have enough to keep the site running, let alone add every new feature requested.
3. We’re a bit wary about EDMs in general because they’re not tied to any actual power. But that’s a reason to warn and educate readers, not exclude them from the account of Parliament.
So, if you really want EDMs on TheyWorkForYou, then, there are two things you can do. The first is donate to our parent charity, UKCOD. The second is to push in every way you can to get Bills published in the way we’ve asked for. That means writing to your MP, or if you are an MP, asking the modernisation committee and the Leader’s office what they’re doing to push past internal opposition to get Bills done right.
NB. Interestingly, the internal opposition is so ill-informed that we have it in writing they they think that TheyWorkForYou already includes EDMs – doh!
Matthew and I have been sitting next to each other today looking at the outputs of his lovely new custom built conversion tracking system, designed to ensure that the optimal number of users who just come to one of our services as a one off get signed up to something else longer lasting.
I’ve been banging on for ages about how government should seize on cross selling people who’ve just finished using one online service into using another of a more democratic nature, so it seems worth spelling out some of the lessons.
First, there’s some interesting data from the last few weeks, since our newest conversion tracking infrastructure has been running in its nice new format.
One of the adverts randomly served to users of WriteToThem (after they’ve finished sending their letter) encourages them to sign up to TheyWorkForYou email alerts – the service people use to get emailed whenever their MP speaks in Parliament. The advert features a slogan of encouragement, and a pre-populated email form containing the user’s email, and a ‘Subscribe me’ button. This advert was shown to 2328 users last month, of whom 676 became TheyWorkForYou email subscribers, which is a pretty cool 29.04% conversion rate. However, we also showed another advert for the same service, to the same WriteToThem users, which also had the same button and text, but which hid the form (and their address). That was shown to 2216 users of whom 390 signed up, a more modest 17.6%. So the impact of simply showing an email box with the users email address in it, versus hiding it, was worth 10% more users. Why? Go figure!
So now we’ve canned the advert that hides the address form, and instead we’re comparing two different adverts both of which feature the pre-populated signup form, but which use different words. It’s probably too early to judge, but the new ad appears to have a very similar conversion rate suggesting it might be hard to squeeze many more subscribers out of this page. We’ll keep trying though!
Another thing we learned of interest was that monthly subscribers to email alerts on TheyWorkForYou were down year on year in the month before we added this new advertising & conversion tracking system, even though the total number of visitors were clearly up on the same month last year. This appears to suggest that two things are happening. First RSS is catching on, so some users who would previously have got email alerts are subscribing to RSS feeds instead. Second, it suggests that the TheyWorkForYou user audience might have been getting more saturated with regulars – proportionally fewer new users coming (although more visitors in absolute terms) so fewer people signing up to get alerts. The cross marketing and conversion tracking seems to have reversed that trend, which is awesome.
We also advertise several different services to people who just finish signing up to get email alerts on TheyWorkForYou itself. We’ve just noticed that a full 25% of people shown the advert to sign up for HearFromYourMP proceed to sign up. We’ve therefore just decided to dump other adverts shown on TheyWorkForYou (such as advertisements for other sorts of TheyWorkFor you email alert) and concentrate on just cross selling HearFromYourMP. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that by just advertising this one site from the completion page we should get an extra 10,000 subscribers to HearFromYourMP this year on top of the organic growth. Not bad for a few minutes analysis, and a number likely to make a fair few more MPs post messages to their patiently waiting constituents.
One last interesting thing (at least to me) is how some more demanding services are a much harder sell than others to users. So asking people to make new groups on GroupsNearYou.com or report a problem in a street on FixMyStreet tend to result in more traditional online marketing scale conversion rates of 0.1% to 2%. Still worth doing, and so we compare different versions of those ads too, to try and eke up those rates for these sites that arguably have more tangible, direct impacts on people and communities.
It will be a challenge for mySociety’s future to work out how to trade off impact against scale of service use – are 10 HearFromYourMP subscribers worth one pothole that doesn’t get fixed? Answers on a postcard…
I’m still busy beavering away at the Facebook / PledgeBank integration. It all works now, but will take a bit more polishing to get just right. Matthew is, I think adding surveys to PledgeBank. So it finds out later if people have or have not done their pledge. Or is he updating to a new version of BoundaryLine at the moment, so our postcode lookup on WriteToThem and everywhere else gets better? Hard to keep track when he does so much at once.
Keith is upgrading our internal documentation, so new people at mySociety can learn how to keep things going. Heather is stalking all of America, finding people to use and promote PledgeBank. Tom is on a much deserved holiday, after seemingly a zillion meetings per day for months.
There’s lots of ongoing maintenance for all our sites. We’re lucky that large chunks of our customer support email are done by volunteers (thanks Anna, Louise, Tim and Tomski/James) and by Debbi (yay Debbi!). Much of this is routine – changing pledge text, updating council email addresses, giving MPs posting links for HearFromYourMP, putting new MP photos up on TheyWorkForYou etc. A lot of it is unique – handling new translations, answering questions from MPs and Lords about their voting record. I’ll let the others give some more examples of the kind of thing we answer.
Speaking of which, do you know any good web developers who would like to work for mySociety? If so, put them in touch.
98 MPs have now sent at least one message via HearFromYourMP. Who will be 100th? Should we tell them? Should we give them a prize? Will there be an auction style-frenzy at the end? Should I be thinking about more important things? Only one of these questions can be answered with any certainty.
Today is the first anniversary of the launch of HearFromYourMP.com. Whilst a bit lower profile than some of our other sites, being driven mainly by email, HearFromYourMP has had a very pleasing first year. Not only have over 25,000 people signed up across the UK, but perhaps more remarkably 84 MPs have used the service to talk with (not to) their constituents. That’s about one in five MPs asked making use within the first year, which we guess must be amongst the fastest adoptions of a new communications tool ever by parliamentarians.
The most important thing to remember about HearFromYourMP, though, is that it is designed to be there for the long haul, gently engaging with that 44% of WriteToThem users who have never written to a politician before and coaxing them into a slow but personal relationship with their representatives. And as a final thought, I note that the Liberal Democrats had 72,721 members in 2004: I wonder how long it will take this little birthday site to get there?
Exactly a year ago, people started signing up to HearFromYourMP. Something in the heady post-General Election excitement made us decide to start harvesting email addresses, before we’d even built the site.
At first it was just a hacked together page (and database) on www.mysociety.org, which we sent people to from WriteToThem. Matthew and Chris then cleverly mutated it into the full live site it is now.
- The first person to sign up was James Cronin (one of our trustees), at 11:17:17 on 5th May 2005.
- The first message from an MP was written by Jo Swinson, and sent on the 14th October,
- 5701 of you had signed up before we even launched the site on 21st November 2005.
- By the end of 16th December 2005 all 646 constituencies had somebody waiting to hear from their MP. The last constituency to be signed up was Newry & Armagh, by the 8864th constituent.
- You can see the graph of signups over the year.
- We’ve now got 16049 signed up (oops, 16050…), one year later. We’ve sent 66 messages from MPs, and 53 comments from constituents.
The fun will be the next few years, as the figures waiting to hear from each MP (check on yours) gradually ratchet up.