1. Parliament and people: research report launch

    Thanks to everyone who braved the very long queues to get into Parliament yesterday — ironically, they were battling for access to a meeting about making parliaments easier to access!

    We hope that those who waited over an hour to gain entry to the House of Lords committee room felt that it was worth it, despite the wintry temperatures.

    Launching Parliament and the People

    Parliament and the people: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa is the result of two in-depth fact-finding trips to Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda by our research team. Read the report here.

    While visiting these countries, report authors Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder spoke to numerous activists, civil servants, elected representatives and civic tech organisations to fully understand just how political information is disseminated digitally in the region.

    Their findings give both a unique insight into how technology is being used in sub-Saharan Africa right now, but also allowed for the formulating of six key recommendations for anyone funding or building tech for political engagement. We believe they will apply anywhere in the world.

    parliament-and-people

    Speakers

    Great thanks to our invited guests who gave us the benefit of their experience and insights into a wide range of associated areas.

    Joining mySociety’s Mark Cridge for hosting duties was Lord Purvis of Tweed, who as a member of the International Relations Committee has an interest in digital tools that help build better, more responsive societies.

    After an overview of the report findings by our own Dr Rebecca Rumbul and Gemma Moulder, there was a discussion with Paul Lenz of Indigo Trust, Julia Keutgen of Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Tom Walker of the Engine Room.

    Recommendations

    The full report is a great read, but if you only have time to take away the key points, here they are in an easily-digestible form.

    1 – Conduct thorough scoping exercises in-country before committing to fund, build or implement a specific solution, and use the intelligence gathered to inform the final product.

    Paul Lenz previously worked for mySociety, and recalled the process of setting up projects inspired by our own TheyWorkForYou parliamentary monitoring website, for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. He’s now working for Indigo, the grant-makers who made those projects possible, so he’s seen both sides of the picture.

    Paul described the act of lifting tech from a UK context and ‘parachuting it in, often at the behest of the in-country organisations themselves, who had seen it working well’ as, in retrospect, a mistake. Rebecca stressed that we need to ask the projected end-users what they need, rather than telling them. Work from the ground up, not the top down.

    Tom added that in-depth scoping research is always useful, and described occasions when it had showed his organisation that a proposed new technology tool was not necessary because local groups were already tackling the problem in other ways. He suggests organisations use the Alidade tool to create a plan for finding technology tools that suit their social change project.

    2 – Work with in-country partners that have a good working relationship with their parliament, and ensure the digital tool is integrated into both their regular work and future discussions with parliament about improving civic engagement

    Again, Paul brought insights from mySociety’s early days, when we positioned ourselves almost as renegade outsiders — in the early days of TheyWorkForYou, for example, we were even threatened with litigation for publishing Hansard without permission. 15 years later, says Paul, we’ve broadly come to understand that it’s far more sensible to work with institutions than against them.

    Some Parliaments may be hostile to overtures from NGOs, but the key is often to find one sympathetic individual and discover what you can do, digitally, for them. That tends to open doors.

    Julia brought in the role of parliaments as distinct from government, especially in relation to scrutiny and committee hearings. Committees need to be open to public record, as they are often closed sessions.

    3 – Make peace with solutions that aren’t necessarily replicable, because a good digital platform that is built to be specifically appropriate to each country’s unique governance structure will likely be better used and have greater longevity than platform structures replicated wholesale from other jurisdictions.

    Each of the countries examined for this report had their own distinct profile when it came to political dissemination by digital means.

    Often these are shaped by factors such as access to the internet or mobile data: is it cheap and available to all sectors of society? Attitudes to politics will have been shaped by the country’s history, and will require different means by which to encourage engagement with the democratic process. These, and many other factors, cannot be shoehorned into a one size fits all solution.

    4 – Ensure that comprehensive, good quality, data sources are identified before trying to build anything, because poor or inconsistent data is one of the most common issues that threatens the operability of digital tools for parliamentary monitoring.

    Contact details of politicians quickly become obsolete — in one of the countries examined, it was common for politicians to change them frequently, specifically to prevent easy access by constituents! Activists have better things to do than collect and maintain data, so input in this area can be extremely helpful – which is the thinking behind our own Democratic Commons project.

    5 – Ensure ongoing, stable funding for maintenance and growth, and ensure this encompasses both development and non-development work, as without this, the platform will rapidly become out of date, and is likely to fall into obsolescence.
     Bad tech ‘poisons the well’, and so do projects that launch with a fanfare but then fall by the wayside as funding is removed. Well-meaning projects can even do more harm than good, if they result in potential users mistrusting new projects because previous ones have made them jaded.

    6 – Integrate digital tools as much as possible with relevant social media platforms, as shareable and user-friendly content is likely to be disseminated much more widely through these channels, than through visits to the tool itself.

    One significant point is that in some countries, internet access is constrained to a few ring-fenced platforms sold as a bundle by mobile phone providers: those subscribing to these very common data packages will never see a parliamentary monitoring website, no matter how beautiful it is, if it can’t be accessed via Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter — and especially if it is heavy to load and eats into a rigid data allowance.

    Of course it’s far more exciting to launch a new site or an app, but the reality is that a quick video clip or graphic that can be easily shared by social media may have much further reach.

     

    Hopefully that has given you a taster of the debate around the report launch and the salient points you’ll find within. For a much more in-depth look at digital democracy in the region, download the report, for free, now.

     

  2. Coming Soon! Parliaments, People and Digital Development Report

    On Wednesday 21st November we will be launching our latest research report ‘Parliaments and the People: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa’.

    This report presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.

    The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.

    The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.

    The full report will be published here on our news feed, via Amazon Kindle, and on our social media feed at 4pm on the 21st November to coincide with a launch event for the report at the House of Lords. That event is now fully subscribed, but please follow along on Twitter #ParliamentsandPeople and @mysociety to share the report and join the conversation.

     

  3. Parliaments, People and Digital Development seminar

    On 21st November we will host a seminar at the House of Lords exploring how digital tools are being used in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring parliaments and citizens closer together.

    During the seminar, we will be launching our Parliaments and the People: Digital Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa report, which presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.

    The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.

    The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.

    The seminar will bring together researchers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss how the insights from this and other work can be integrated into policy, engagement and future development work.

    Speakers:

    • Hosted by Lord Purvis of Tweed & Mark Cridge, CEO mySociety
    • Dr Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety (Report author)
    • Gemma Moulder, Partnership Development Manager, mySociety (Report author)
    • Paul Lenz, Trust Executive, Indigo Trust
    • Julia Keutgen, Parliamentary Development Advisor, Westminster Foundation for Democracy
    • Two further speakers will be announced soon.

    Date/time: 21st November 4pm – 6pm.

    As capacity is limited, attendance to the event is by invitation only. If you’re interested in attending please email  to request an invite and we’ll let you know full details.

     

     

  4. Get ready for TICTeC Local in Manchester

    We’re delighted to be hosting the first TICTeC Local conference in Manchester on 6th November 2018.

    TICTeC Local is a spinoff from our global The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, which is now in its fifth successful year.

    This event will narrow the lens, focusing on where and how civic tech connects with and impacts Local Government, rather than the international focus we have with our global TICTeC events.

    We’ll be examining what works and why, the challenges and ethical decisions involved in using civic tech and how these initiatives can be replicated by local authorities around the UK.

    We’ll hear from many local authorities and civic tech practitioners in the UK and further afield who are leading the way on using technology to improve civic participation, streamline citizen interaction with public bodies, and create efficiencies in civic budgets.

    If you work in or around the local authority or local public institution space, and have an interest in using digital tools, then do come and join us in Manchester.

    You will leave inspired by some of our showcased projects, you’ll have a better understanding of the most effective digital tools, and you’ll have met interesting people who are on a similar journey, or who might be able to help you in developing your digital capacity in the future.

    We’ll be announcing speakers and contributors over the next couple of weeks.

    For further information and booking please visit the TICTeC Local website. Tickets are available over on Eventbrite and will go fast.

  5. Join us in Paris for TICTeC 2019

    We’re delighted to announce that TICTeC 2019, our fifth conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Paris on 19 and 20 March 2019.

    Stick that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    TICTeC is an annual milestone in the Civic Tech world, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and all those with an interest in how technology is changing the way we engage with society.

    Primarily, the goal of TICTeC is to promote and share rigorous and meaningful research into civic technologies and digital democracy around the world. The conference facilitates discussion and networking amongst individuals and groups to find real-world solutions through sharing evidence of impact, and (importantly) evidence of what doesn’t work.

    Call for Papers now open

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC 2019, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 11th January 2019.

    Register

    For the last two years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on Friday 8th February 2019.

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in March in beautiful Paris! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse all the resources from this year’s TICTeC and/or watch this video overview:

    Photo by Grillot edouard on Unsplash

  6. Exploring the representation of women around the world

    The Inter Parliamentary Union release a report each year detailing changes in the representation of women across the world. In 2017, women represented 23.4% of all MPs – which is less than half of the proportion of women in the population at large.

    While the picture for the last decade shows a positive trend, there is nothing inevitable about ever-increasing representation of women. The IPU report notes that while Albania and France’s representation of women rose by 10% and 12% respectively, other countries saw a decline. Improved representation of women is often a result of decisions deliberately taken to improve representation, rather than being a natural outcome of unstoppable social forces.

    One of the pitfalls of international comparisons is that it obscures some of the drivers of good and poor representation. Increased representation of women is often uneven, and concentrated more in some parties rather than others. As Miki Caul points out, international comparisons of relative representation of women overlook “the fact that individual parties vary greatly in the proportion of women MPs within each nation”. Similarly, Lena Wängnerud arguescross-country studies tend to miss variations between parties within a single system. Variations in the proportion of women to men are even greater across parties than across nations”.

    To understand more about this, we’ve built an experimental mini site to examine the roles of parties in driving the representation of women. Using data from EveryPolitician.org (which contains gender and party information for a number of countries), we can explore the respective contributions of different parties to representation of women.

    For this it’s not enough to look at the gender ratios of all the parties individually, as those with the best proportional representation of women are often quite small — for instance,  the Green Party in the UK has 100% female representation, in the form of its one MP.

    Instead, what we look at is the respective contributions to the total gender ratio. For each party we look at how much better or worse the proportional representation of women would be if you ignored that party’s MPs.

    For instance in the UK, while the gender ratio of the current House of Commons is around 32%, the Labour Party’s ratio is around 44%. If you take out the Labour Party the representation of women in the House of Common as a whole drops to 23%.

    For our purposes, the Labour Party is the UK’s Most Valuable Party (MVP) — ignoring it leads to the largest reduction in the representation of women. For each country, the gap between the ‘gender ratio’ and the ‘gender ratio ignoring the MVP’ gives a new metric of how to understand the gap in gender representation. Where this number is high, it means that the role of individual parties is very important; where it is lower it means that the ratio is not strongly driven by party effects. For instance, the gender ratio in the United States is strongly driven by party effects, while in Bolivia it is not.

    Countries with a wide gap between the ‘ratio ignoring the best party’ and ‘ratio ignoring the worst party’ tend to be countries that use majoritarian electoral systems, like the UK. Pippa Norris shows that systems using majoritarian electoral systems tend to have a poorer representation of women than those using proportional representation, but also that there is a lot of variation within each family of electoral systems and “the basic type of electoral system is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to guarantee women’s representation”.

    Our analysis shows that parties have different levels of agency to improve the overall representation of women depending on the party structure created by the electoral system. Countries that use proportional representation tend to show smaller party effects because there are usually more parties with fewer MPs — and so the ability of any one party to shift the overall representation is reduced. Conversely, in FPTP parliaments with only a few major parties, a large amount of change can happen by only one of these major parties taking measures to improve their internal representation of women.

    For example, while Germany’s CDU and the UK’s Conservative party have a similar representation of women at the national level (20.5% and 21.14% respectively), the Conservative party has more than twice the leverage to affect the overall representation of women simply by changing their own policy.

    There are limits to using the proportional representation of women as a single measure for the political representation of women. As mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul has previously shown, even bodies with relatively good representation of women like the National Assembly for Wales can then fall down on other areas – with a low proportion of oral evidence to consultations and committees coming from women. While the UK’s Conservative party performs poorly on the proportion of MPs, it has conversely selected more female party leaders and Prime Ministers.

    Importantly, looking at the representation of women as a single figure also obscures the important role of social factors as such class or race in shaping which women are represented. Creating a metric for comparison across many different countries is inherently reductive and discards important information about local context in every instance.

    Our goal with this website has been to re-complicate the international comparison by moving away from a single national statistic for representation in a way that assigns agency to political actors within each country. Variations among these parties (and international variations in this variation) reflect that representation of currently under-represented groups isn’t a natural fact of life in a given country, but reflects choices made – and that other choices can lead to different outcomes.

    This is still a work in progress and we acknowledge there will be holes in how this data has been applied. Lack of gender information for all countries means that some countries that have high representation of women (such as Rwanda) are not addressed. This means that it shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive ranking — but we hope it is useful as a jumping off point for thinking about the representation of women in parliaments across the world.

    We have detailed our methodology here, including known issues with the data. This is an early experiment with the data and we welcome feedback on the website here; or get in touch through the contact details here.

    The data the site is built on can be downloaded from everypolitician.org.

    You can explore the website here, or sign up to the research newsletter here.


    Image: Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

  7. Why do representatives write back? Using WriteToThem to understand more

    Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?

    The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.

    We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.

    We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.


    Image: Chris Flexen (Unsplash

  8. TICTeC 2018 in Lisbon: Conference resources now online

    Back in April, we hosted the fourth edition of our research conference The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Lisbon, Portugal.

    We were thrilled to bring together 150 leaders in the field from 29 countries to take stock of the civic technology research landscape and to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using technology for social good.

    62 speakers from 19 countries covered topics such as: responsible technology; accountability keywords; blockchain; fact-checking; service delivery; bridging the civic tech research divide; working with governments; impact measurement; open contracting; amongst many, many others. Thank you to everyone involved for sharing your experiences and research.

    If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), do check out the TICTeC website to see videos of all conference sessions, interviews with delegates, photos, and slides where available.

    As a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:

    Thank you again to Google and the MacArthur Foundation for sponsoring TICTeC. We’ll keep you all posted on next year’s event over on the research mailing list and on the TICTeC Google Group.

  9. Investigating political communication in Sub-Saharan Africa

    Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.

    Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.

    Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.

    We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.

    So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.

    We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).

    mySociety researchers outside Nigerian House of Representatives

    A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!

    From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).

    We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.

    One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.

    A quick selfie during the fireside chat we did at HiveCoLab, Kampala.

    After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.

    We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).

    A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.

    A researcher’s life: waiting in cafés for the next interviewees 🙂

    Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.

    During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).

    A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.

    The V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

    We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.

    So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.

    We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!

    Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)

  10. mySociety Data Portal

    mySociety services produce a lot of useful (and interesting!) data. Over the years we’ve often made components or the results of mySociety services available through APIs (like our MapIt service) or as open data to download (such as our EveryPolitician data).

    What we haven’t been good at is showing you the full breadth of what we have available, or how component parts can be used together. Sometimes we find users of one aspect of mySociety data being unaware of other relevant datasets.

    To fix this problem, we’ve created a new data portal – data.mysociety.org –  to bring all the data we publish into one place. From the politicians of Albania to data about all ministerial and parliamentary roles UK MPs have held, everything can be found on one site.

    Our research team will also use this site to publish supplementary materials to papers and blog posts that might be of use to others (such as a lookup table for the different codes used for UK Local Authorities). So we plan to keep adding data whenever we can!


    Image: Ash Edmonds (Unsplash)