— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.
Well, it certainly all happened over the weekend: the resignation of one Secretary of State on Friday and the quick appointment of another by Saturday.
It all left a lot of people wondering just who this Stephen Crabb fellow was, and what he stood for.
Fortunately, there’s a very handy website where you can look up the details, debates and voting records of every MP — we refer, of course, to our very own TheyWorkForYou. Over the weekend, we saw the link to Crabb’s voting record shared across social media (and even good old traditional media; we were also mentioned on Radio 4’s Any Answers). Naturally, most interest was around Crabb’s voting habits when it comes to welfare and benefits.
The upshot of this was that TheyWorkForYou saw almost three times our normal traffic for a Saturday. Over the weekend, 30% of all page views were for Crabb’s profile or voting records. In contrast, just 1.83% thought to check out his predecessor’s record: yesterday’s news already, it seems.
So Stephen Crabb’s the new guy, and you may want to keep up to date with his contributions to Parliament. Sign up here and we’ll send you an email every time he speaks.
We recently added an Environment section to voting pages on TheyWorkForYou, so now you can see exactly how your MP voted on issues like fracking, measures to prevent climate change, and green energy, all in one place, like this:
Votes on environmental issues are clearly a priority for our users. They’ve been one of the most-requested additions in the TheyWorkForYou postbag over the last couple of years, and we’re glad to have fulfilled those requests, even if it took a while.
At the same time, we’ve also made several other additions to existing sections on voting pages, so now you can check how your MP has voted in these areas:
- Assisted dying
- Trade union regulation
- Taxation of banks
- Enforcement of immigration rules
- MPs’ veto over laws only affecting their part of the UK (AKA English votes for English laws)
To check your own MP’s voting record, head over to TheyWorkForYou.com, and input your postcode on the homepage. Then click ‘voting record’ at the top of your MP’s page.
If you have strong opinions about how your MP voted on any issue, don’t forget, you can let them know by clicking on ‘Send a Message’, which will take you over to WriteToThem.com.
In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday Parliament debated whether Donald Trump should be barred entry to the UK.
This is a bit of an occasion, because the first petition has been signed by more people than any other in this Parliament. It has 573,971 signatures, and its title is “Block Donald J Trump from UK entry”. The second petition is titled “Don’t ban Trump from the United Kingdom”. That petition is curious. It has 42,898 signatures, but 30,000 signatures were removed because they were thought to be suspect and coming from one source.
Now, regular TheyWorkForYou readers know that parliamentary debates are often interesting, sometimes thought-provoking, and occasionally amusing. The Trump debate is a great example of all of those things.
But most people see the goings-on in Parliament as very dull. Today, you might want to do someone a favour, and point them towards this particular debate, which you can see in full here.
As always with TheyWorkForYou content, it’s easy to search, share or link to any individual section. And as if that’s not enough, this debate contains the only use of the word wazzock yet recorded in Parliament. Now that’s got to be worth a share.
Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?
You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.
Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.
That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.
If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.
How is the data explosion transforming our world?
That’s the question that inspires the Big Bang Data exhibition, running from today until February 28 at Somerset House in London.
Alongside all kinds of data displays, data-inspired artwork and data-based innovations, the exhibition features our very own FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou as examples of websites that are using data for the common good.
The exhibits range from fun to thought-provoking to visually rather beautiful: we enjoyed Nicholas Felton‘s annual reports about himself, the Dear Data project, and innovative devices such as the fitness tracker for dogs. Most of all, of course, we enjoyed seeing our very own websites put into context and available for everyone to have a go with. 🙂
We’re delighted to have been included in this event, and we recommend a visit if you’re in the area. There’s plenty to keep you interested and informed for a good hour or two.
How do you pin down the intangible?
More specifically, how do we understand something as nebulous as why people visit our websites? For better or worse, Google Analytics can’t provide brain scans to show our users’ motivations, so the only solution is to ask them.
Between May and August of this year, if you visited TheyWorkForYou, you might have seen a pop-up inviting you to answer a few questions. Some users also gained new site features. It was all part of a concerted drive to understand more about why you use the site, and part of our wider research programme funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Many thanks if you were one of those who responded. In all, the survey generated a couple of a million data points, which has certainly given our resident data-cruncher, Nick, plenty to wade through.
Why do people use TheyWorkForYou?
We know why we run TheyWorkForYou: it aims to make Parliament—often perceived as ‘not for the likes of me’—more accessible for everyone. But what we don’t know is whether or not we are achieving that aim.
You see, with our other sites, WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet or WriteToThem, there is a set path that indicates a successful visit. The user lodges an FOI request, reports a problem, or writes to their representatives.
TheyWorkForYou, on the other hand, does not promote an action. There are actions you can take, like signing up for email alerts, or adding an annotation to a debate—but these are secondary to the site’s primary function, which is simply to present information. There’s no measurable metric that can tell us how informed people are after they’ve read one of our pages, nor what they do with that information. Hence the survey.
People hate pop-ups
One of our first findings came as no surprise: yes, we hate pop-ups too*! And yet, we wanted to keep users on the site while they answered our questions, so that’s the interface we used.
75.7% of people dismissed the pop-up when it appeared. We’d probably have done the same. We’d like to meet the remaining 24.3% of people and shake their hands.
The pop-up asked users what they would go on to do with the information they’d found on TheyWorkForYou. And most people gave the same answer they would if a shop assistant had asked: in fact, 75.2% said they were ‘just browsing’, with no further plans.
That makes us really curious as to what provoked that browsing: are they regular visitors, or were they sent to TheyWorkForYou via a tweet or Facebook reminder? Maybe one of our email alerts was the trigger. Google Analytics will allow us to see which site referred visitors to us, but of course we can’t match that data with individual motivations.
A further 10.9% of users had come with the intention of contacting their MP: TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages feature a prominent button inviting you to do that, and clicking on it takes you to our site WriteToThem.
6.6% of people were using the site for work purposes. Only 3.1% of people had plans to share content via social media, a statistic we’d like to increase if we can.
During the research period, some users (not necessarily those who had seen the pop-up) saw an addition to person pages and debate pages: a “where next” button, which led to some suggestions on how to use the information they’d found on the site.
This button was not widely used: just 0.1% of people clicked it. As so often with research findings, this result leads to more questions: did people already know what they wanted to do? Did they not want to do anything? Were they, perhaps, annoyed at the suggestion they might need guidance?
Or was the button just poorly positioned? We may run some further testing to find out if a more prominent placing leads to more clicks.
Of those few people who did click through for advice, the most popular options were to use WriteToThem to contact their MP about what they’d just read, or to contact the Parliamentary Ombudsman—it seems that on the few occasions when people do welcome a next step, they do want to take action.
Follow the news
Meanwhile, we were also taking a concentrated look at our site analytics. The test period coincided with the Labour party leadership contest and David Cameron’s cabinet announcements, and we saw very clearly how current affairs have an effect on which pages people visit.
John Whittingdale (the new Culture Secretary)’s voting record and Jeremy Corbyn’s profile page were far and away the most visited pages by several thousand (they’re responsible for the spike on the left of the graph that you see below). Also popular were the profile pages of the other Labour candidates, and Corbyn’s voting record.
But the other pages visited were very diverse: an extreme example of the long tail effect.
We reckon it takes more than a few seconds to take in a parliamentary debate, so one of the things we measure on Google Analytics is how many people stick around for more than 7 seconds, and again, for more than ten seconds.
Actually, we get pretty good results for the 7-second cut-off. Recent work we did on the design of the site’s debate pages had an effect that was a real cause for celebration: a massive 46% drop in the bounce rate (ie people who leave the site after viewing just one page)
But only 38% then stick around long enough for the second trigger, which doesn’t indicate as much involvement as we might have hoped for.
What have we learned?
At the end of this experiment, we reckon we’ve learned four main things:
- We need to carry on thinking about how to encourage more engagement with TheyWorkForYou’s content
- Current affairs are a huge driver to the site, and we can build on this via social media—and especially by encouraging our users to share the content they’ve found
- We need to conduct more experiments to see whether people genuinely don’t want advice about how to use the information they’ve found, or whether they would take it if it was more prominently flagged up
- There’s also a motivation to dig in deeper to motivations: what made people come to the site, if they are ‘just browsing’? What exactly are they doing ‘for work’? And if they want to contact their MP, what was the trigger for that?
If you have thoughts about any of these, as regards your own usage of TheyWorkForYou, please do feel free to comment below. And if you’d like to find out more about our research programme there’s plenty of information here, along with news of our annual research conference, TICTeC.
*And we know who to blame.
Image: The U.S. Printing Co., Russell-Morgan Print, Cincinnati & New York [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
How do you know when Parliament is going to be debating the things you care about? One way is to use TheyWorkForYou—you can set it up to send you handy reminders ahead of time.
On the agenda
The legalisation of cannabis is one of those topics that people have strong opinions about, and we’ve noticed a few tweets where people are saying that they’ve used WriteToThem.com to share their views with their MPs, ahead of today’s Westminster Hall debate on the matter.
Of course, you can share your thoughts on any topic with your MP, at any time. Doing so just before a debate is useful, though, as it means your representative is more likely to take your views into consideration before voting or speaking.
TheyWorkForYou.com, our site that covers the UK’s parliaments, actually makes it pretty easy to time your messages correctly. As well as publishing everything spoken in Parliament, it also shows upcoming business.
More than that, you can subscribe to any key word or phrase within the upcoming business section, and we’ll send you an email whenever it arises. So, whether you care deeply about cannabis, or your interests lie in another topic all together, you’ll know when a debate is scheduled.
And then you can get straight onto WriteToThem to write your message.
Here’s how to set up your ‘future business’ alert:
1. Go to the future business page on TheyWorkForYou.
2. Enter your chosen word or phrase in the search box to the right (titled Search upcoming business, or set up a future business email alert)
3. You’ll be taken to a page showing any future business containing your keyword. On the right of that page you’ll see a box like this:
Notice the small text: (or just forests in Future Business). Click on this if you’d like to receive results only for forthcoming debates.
4. You’ll be asked to confirm what you want:
5. Click ‘subscribe’ and you’ll be asked to input your email address (unless you are already logged in). Check your email to confirm your address and you’re done — all ready to fire off an email to your MP next time something important is on the horizon.
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Scottish Parliamentary proceedings are now back on TheyWorkForYou.
Back in August 2014, the Scottish Parliament changed the way it published the Official Report of its debates.
TheyWorkForYou works by fetching data from various parliamentary sources—and in this case, unfortunately, the change at the Scottish Parliament end meant that our code no longer worked. We replaced our ‘debates’ section with an apologetic note.
Well, thanks to the Scottish Parliament kindly republishing the data in almost the format we used to use, we’ve managed to make some small tweaks and restore that content—including debates from the previously missing period. If you’re subscribed to alerts, you should have received an email digest with links to the backdated content (always supposing there was any that matched your chosen keywords).
And if you’re not subscribed to alerts? Now is a great time to rectify that. We’ll send you an email every time your chosen word or phrase is mentioned in Parliament, or every time your chosen representative speaks.
While we were doing this work, we also modified TheyWorkForYou so that it now pulls in ministerial data from the Scottish Parliament API. This is a welcome time-saver for us: previously we were creating a list manually from the official PDFs, while we can now automatically fetch it and reformat it into Popolo JSON, meaning it’s consistent with all our other data.
Thanks for your patience; we know that many people were awaiting this repair, and for longer than we would have liked. Enjoy!
Back in November 2013, we asked you what improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou.
One answer dominated: you wanted more information about how MPs vote.
Adding information on voting has been the single biggest project on the site since its launch, and has required several different phases of development. We announced each of these as it happened, but now that we’re at the end of this large piece of work, it seems like a good time for a complete overview.
So let’s take a look at exactly what it has involved—and, more importantly, what it means for you.
We’ll start with a rundown of features, then go into more detail about how they are created at the end of the post, for those who are interested.
What vote information means for you
1. You can easily see how your MP voted
Just how much do you know about how your MP voted on the stuff that matters? Most of us would have a hard time keeping up with every vote, simply because it isn’t information that’s widely publicised.
On TheyWorkForYou, you can see a run-down of how any MP has voted on key policies, by visiting their page on the site and clicking the ‘voting record’ tab (see image, above). We’ve created summaries of their stance on all kinds of matters, including the EU, same-sex marriage, NHS reform and a lot more.
Each of these summaries is compiled from every vote the MP has made on a motion that impacts on that policy.
You can click ‘show votes’ (see image above) to see the specific votes that go to make up any particular stance, and we’ve laid them all out in plain English so that it’s easy to grasp exactly what the issue is.
And from there you can click through to the website Public Whip, where you can explore votes in more detail, including lists of who voted for or against any given motion.
2. You can find out how strongly your MP feels
When we first presented voting information, we said that an MP had voted ‘strongly for’ or ‘moderately against’ certain policies, which led to quite a large postbag from people asking, “How can you vote strongly, surely you either vote for or against?”.
We wrote in the second half of this blog post about the wording changes we made to clarify the fact that these stances are calculated from a number of votes.
3. You can assess if your MP is a sheep or a lone wolf
We’ve pulled out all the votes which differ substantially from the way that the majority of each MP’s party voted. If your MP has voted against the flow, you’ll see something like this on their page:
Why do we highlight this type of vote? Because we think they’re a really good indication of where an MP feels strongly enough about something to risk sticking their neck out. It’s also a great way to check the truth when people say, “MPs? They’re all the same”.
4. You can understand the background to the votes
Generally speaking, there’s a debate before any vote takes place in Parliament, covering all the matters which may be topmost in MPs’ minds before they cast their lot.
Clicking on the ‘show full debate’ link from the topic pages (see image above) will give you the full context.
How we compile vote information
If that all seems nice and simple, well, great! That was our aim.
Putting it all together definitely wasn’t so simple, though. Voting information has never been previously presented all in one place in quite this way before—on TheyWorkForYou or anywhere else, to the best of our knowledge—so we had to figure out how to import the data and how best to display it.
As with much of our work, it’s a mixture of manual graft and automating whatever we can. Some things, like rewriting votes so that everyone can understand them, can’t be done by a computer. But many of our users are surprised to learn just how much of what we publish out is untouched by human hand.
Our Developer Struan, who did the most recent round of work on the voting records, said:
We get all our voting data from PublicWhip, a site set up by Francis Irving (once of mySociety) and Julian Todd. Public Whip takes the data we [TheyWorkForYou] produce from Hansard and extracts only the information on votes (or divisions in Parliamentary jargon) that take place in Parliament. It then allows you to look up how an MP or a Lord voted.
Let’s just think about that for a moment. We’re looking at a process where Parliament publishes Hansard, TheyWorkForYou scrapes the data and re-presents it, Public Whip extracts the voting information and presents that, and TheyWorkForYou takes that voting information back for its own voting pages. Simple…
One of the first things we did was to ‘translate’ the votes into plain English, so that it was very clear what was being voted for or against— and if you want to read more about that process, we talked about it in a blog post back in July 2014.
That allowed us to move to the next phase, as Struan explains:
Public Whip groups related votes together into policies, e.g renewing Trident, so you can see how an MP voted on the policy as a whole.
It does this by saying which way an MP would have to vote each of the divisions in the policy if they agreed with the policy. It then takes the MP’s votes on each division in the policy and assigns a score to it based on how they voted. These scores are then added up and compared to the score they would get if they always voted in agreement with the policy. The closer the MP’s score is to the score of an MP who always voted in agreement with the policy, the more they agree with the policy.
Thanks to Public Whip’s grouping, we were able to start compiling our MPs’ voting records along those same policy lines.
One of the most fiddly parts of the process was figuring out how to ensure that the information we present is a true, non-biased representation of the MP’s intentions. You might think that a vote is quite a simple matter – it’s either a yes or a no for a particular motion. But as soon as we started displaying votes within a policy, things got a bit trickier.
Some divisions in a policy can be marked as important and voting with the policy in those divisions is worth more points. This is to prevent voting in agreement on a set of minor votes, e.g “Parliament will commission a report on the future of Trident”, outweighing voting against something important, e.g. “Renew Trident”. It also reflects the way Parliament works, often with several smaller votes on parts of a bill and then a vote on the bill as a whole.
For clarity I should point out here that sometimes voting no in a division is a vote for the policy, e.g voting no in a “This house believes Trident should not be renewed” division would clearly be a vote for our example “Renew Trident” policy.
This approach also helps where one vote straddles several topics: for example, consider a vote against the Budget when the Budget contains many proposals including, say, the capping of VAT. It’s quite possible that an MP may be for the capping of VAT but broadly against several other motions covered by the Budget, and so decides to vote against it on balance. So long as we mark the Budget vote as a weak vote for the capping of VAT, its significance should be properly accounted for.
Where we don’t have enough information to show a stance, for example where an MP never voted on the topic, is too new to have had a chance to vote on the topic, or all their votes on the topic have been labelled as ‘weak’, we say so:
A final little subtlety is the difference between “Never voted” on a policy and votes where the MP was absent. If it says an MP has never voted on a policy that means they were elected after all the divisions in the policy took place so did not have a chance to vote on them. Absent means they could have voted in the divisions but did not.
Absent votes count towards your score but at half the rate of voting in agreement with the policy. This is so that an MP who votes in agreement with the policy in one division and then misses all the other divisions shows as agreeing with the policy rather than against as it would if no score was assigned to absent votes. That does currently mean that if they were always absent it shows, slightly unhelpfully, as “a mixture of for and against”.
It’s not an ideal system as it does produce some odd results occasionally but it mostly works.
To show where an MP has voted against the majority of their party, we have to figure out a similar score across the party as a whole.
This is exactly the same process, only we add up all the votes by all the MPs but the maths is pretty much the same.
All in a day’s work
As mentioned at the top of this post, vote information was our most-requested addition. And rightly so! Our MPs represent us, so naturally we want to see their track records, quickly and easily.
If you’re not an expert, you might not have known how to find this information before. And that’s essentially what TheyWorkForYou aims to do: make the workings of Parliament more accessible for everyone.
Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.