1. Parliamentary votes during COVID-19

    Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.

    We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.

    The old normal

    Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.

    MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.

    This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.

    Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.

    And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.

    A digital revolution — and a roll back

    There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.

    MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.

    But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.

    The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.

    Proxy voting is the wrong approach

    While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.

    There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.

    This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).

    As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.

    While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.

    In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.

    But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.

    Portraying MPs fairly

    Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.

    Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:

    • We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
    • We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
    • In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.

    mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.

    Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.

     

     

    Who could vote when?

    Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting
    11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave
    2 June – 4 June Parental leave Physically present
    5 June-9 June Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present
    10th June- Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present

     

    Image: First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus 22/04/2020 by UK Parliament

  2. Citizens assemblies are back, in handbook form

    Last year, mySociety worked as part of a consortium to deliver three local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. This was as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme, which was a joint project between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. The goal was to trial new ways of involving citizens in local decision making. Alongside Involve, the Democratic Society and the RSA we investigated how digital tools and methods could be used as part of deliberative processes. 

    As one of the final parts of this programme, the RSA has published a handbook about what we learned, and case studies of each of the assemblies:

    The RSA have also blogged about the handbook.

    mySociety’s part in this project was primarily to investigate how best to use digital tools to complement an in-person citizens’ assembly. We published this as two sets of guidance:

    The first is a practical exploration into what materials are best to prepare and show on a website for a citizens’ assembly; the second looks at how tools can be used to bring evidence and external contributions into the debate, without diluting the representative nature of how participants were selected.  

    The handbook also describes an approach we helped with at the assembly in Test Valley. Discussions at pre-evidence sessions were recorded in argument maps for reference during the event. 

    This thinking has led into our work on the UK’s climate assembly helping proceedings, evidence and outputs to be transparent and available to everyone who is interested. 

    Since that project, for fairly obvious reasons, many organisations that previously focused on offline deliberation are now looking to pivot rapidly into how to run online deliberation. Involve has a good guide as to the range of tools and approaches that can be useful.

    We are continuing to research and think about how citizens can be more integral to decision making, and what the appropriate role of technology is in making this happen. You can subscribe to our research newsletter to hear more: 

  3. Digital technology and trust

    The House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has released its report: Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust

    mySociety submitted written evidence last year, and our Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, gave evidence in February 2020.

    The recommendations can be seen online, but we were pleased to see a point taken up from our friends at Democracy Club, that there should be more open data about elections, candidates and polling stations so focus can be on providing that information to citizens rather than sourcing it. 

    This recommendation in particular reflects mySociety thinking:

    Technology can play an important role in engaging people with democratic processes. Parliament and government, at all levels, should not seek to use technology simply to reduce costs, and must ensure that appropriate technology is used to enhance and enrich democratic engagement.

    Through our research and practical work in the last few years, we have been concerned with finding the appropriate place for technology in addressing problems. 

    Digital solutions have enormous potential to scale cheaply (and have powerful uses in democratic transparency), but also have uneven engagement and require different skill sets to manage. Where digital tools allow more efficiency, this should enable resources to be redirected towards improving the overall quality of the exercise. 

    As we argued last year when we were looking at digital tools and democratic participation:

    Where using a tool can bring down other costs, those funds can be redeployed towards outreach and other real world activities to broaden participation. The use of digital tools must be understood as part of the whole system, which involves gauging not just what the tool does, but the effort and time it can free up to address other priorities.

    The problem of citizens and communities being excluded from the political process will rarely be fixed by a digital tool alone, but when correctly aligned with democratic efforts to involve people in decision making,  they can be a powerful part of the solution. 

    Photo credit: Photo by Ciel Cheng on Unsplash

  4. Black Lives Matter: educating ourselves

    Black Lives Matter.

    The protests in the US and subsequently the UK are finally forcing those of us who don’t face racism daily to confront the inherent biases, unfairness and systemic racism that exists here in the UK. The toppling of statues, the renaming of streets and an increasing willingness to listen and learn are a start, but there is so much more to do.

    mySociety’s work has always been about understanding where power lies and how to enhance people’s abilities to hold that power to account and call out injustice. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protestors and all Black people who have experienced systemic and institutional discrimination.

    We recognise that the injustices perpetrated by the current system and institutions, built on centuries of racial injustice and colonial violence, disproportionately impact those from Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. It is only right, therefore, that we reflect upon where we’re falling short in our support of these communities and what we might do to better as an organisation and as a sector to change those dynamics.

    Starting with ourselves

    Technology reinforces structural inequality by actively equipping state institutions to deliver unjust outcomes more efficiently, e.g. by wilfully enabling state surveillance (knowing that people of colour are disproportionately affected by this) while civil society and civic tech have failed to open up channels for engagement that work better for marginalised groups and aren’t primarily on the terms of extant powerful institutions.

    This is exacerbated by representation in civic tech which suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields that we’re part of: with usually white leadership and staff, most tech roles held by men, and limited opportunities for progression for those from BAME communities. The challenges of this narrow representation in our field are very clearly laid out by Decolonizing Civic Tech.

    Having spent the past few years successfully improving gender equality within our own team but with less success in improving our ethnic diversity, we are well aware that changing the make-up of an organisation does not happen of its own accord; it requires intention and purpose – we’ll only have more Black colleagues by actually hiring them.

    Changing the composition of our teams to become more diverse is not an overnight job and we have to start from where we are. That means making explicit commitments to actively tackle racism in our organisation and the wider sector, advertise for new roles to ensure that they reach prospective Black candidates and the role and organisation is seen as attractive to work in, creating leadership opportunities for Black colleagues, and providing support for training and career progression where we can.

    Something we can make progress on more immediately is how we can best help shift power within our sector, and without assuming this is what is needed explore what appetite exists for establishing more cross sector communities to provide support and mentorship between Black colleagues within different civic tech organisations and the wider field.

    Where we are falling short

    Five years ago we released our report on ‘Who benefits from Civic Technology’ which looked at the inherent biases in who was more likely to make use of our services; in the UK they tended to be older, usually white and usually male – basically those already comfortable dealing with public officials, in public, and with an expectation that their requests would be dealt with in a timely manner.

    Since then not enough has changed.

    Internationally all of the successful work we have done has been carried out in partnership, with local groups who understand their community, the political situation, how best to operate and run their services.

    We identified this partnership approach as being the key way that we could better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they could benefit more marginalised communities. Despite a few exceptions we simply haven’t made enough progress on this.

    So with each new project we will redouble our efforts to listen to and collaborate with those groups and individuals drawn from these communities to better understand how we might change our approach where needed, make services that work for those who most need them, or just get out of the way and support others when it’s not our place to help. We’re committed to reporting back on progress against this in our research programme.

    Educating ourselves

    As a team and individuals we recognise that it’s up to us to educate ourselves on how to be anti-racist. Like many others, we’re sharing books and articles to read so that we all better understand the issues and recognise what we need to do to change.

    From our internal discussions we’ve made clear that it’s okay to be uncertain of how to react or what to say – but it’s even better to learn from each other. This is not just the work of a few blog posts or the occasional meeting – it’s about understanding how we normalise anti-racism within our day to day work, to adapt our approach and working methods where required.

    We’ll consider the language we use to describe what we do, how we might better use the funds, access and what influence we have to raise up and introduce Black voices within our sector and the communities that we serve.

    And where we get it wrong along the way we’ll try to fix it and make it right.

    On a personal note

    As a senior leader within a civil society organisation I’m not unusual in being a middle-aged white man.

    One thing I do understand is that the job of leadership is to help create the conditions for your team to succeed and do their best work in the right way. This applies equally with the need to create a more diverse team and culture, especially when all the research suggests that more diverse teams are more successful in their goals and impact.

    So whilst I hold a position of responsibility it’s on me to cede that held space to others as we find and support new leaders to take our work forward – which is ultimately what I’ll be held accountable for in the future.

    And if you like me are looking for a good place to begin, this post by Salma Patel: ‘White senior leaders: 12 practical things you can do this week to create a supportive culture for your Black/BAME colleagues’ is a very useful starting point.

    Image: Sam Pearson (CC by-nc-sa)

     

  5. Can you believe we’ve reached Peak Pothole Day already?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    I saw a comment on Twitter the other month along the lines of: “is civic tech too boring? It’s dominated by reporting potholes to councils”.

    As someone working in civic tech I find this terribly unfair because civic tech is about so much more than that! For instance, we also report dog poo to councils. 

    But it’s certainly true that there are a lot of potholes involved. It’s the largest use of FixMyStreet, representing a quarter of all reports. People have submitted over 361,000 reports and over 54,000 photos of potholes. As a result, while the FixMyStreet database represents a fraction of all potholes, it represents one of the largest datasets of pothole reports covering the whole country. 

    And while it’s easy to think of potholes as the obsession of people pointing at roads in local papers, they are a serious problem. There are a lot of them, they appear everywhere, cause problems on roads when people try to avoid them, and damage when they don’t.  For cyclists, potholes can be fatal

    Given that, what does FixMyStreet data tell us about potholes?

    How many potholes are reported through FixMyStreet?

    Up to the end of 2019 there have been 423,736 potholes or road surface defects reported through FixMyStreet (either .com or a cobrand), with 90,000 reported in 2019. Working from a rough figure of 675,000 actual pothole reports a year, this is around 13% of all potholes reported in the UK. 

    A feature of reports to FixMyStreet  is that, while the majority of reports are made by men, there are different ratios in different kinds of reports and categories are often gendered in terms of reporters. Deriving the gender of the reporter from their name, potholes and road surface defects are mostly reported by men, and disproportionately more than the site in general. 

    As explored in a previous post, this isn’t an essential gender difference but is likely to result from men having far more cause to encounter potholes. In 2013, men in the UK were on average driving twice as many miles per year as women

    People who report potholes are more likely to have reported multiple problems than other reports. Most pothole reports are made by people who have reported multiple reports and represent a smaller proportion of single report users than other report types.  

    When are potholes reported?

    Potholes tend to be reported during the day, but disproportionately compared to other requests around the evening commute. The chart below shows the distribution of reports by time of day, where green indicates the number of reports is higher than the general distribution of FixMyStreet data. 

    While potholes are associated most with the start of the year, they occur in smaller numbers all year long. The number of potholes reported through FixMyStreet peaks on the 28th February. 

    Where are potholes reported?

    While reports in FixMyStreet are less likely to be made in less deprived areas in general, this effect is larger for potholes:

    This effect is driven more by reporting being lower than usual in more deprived areas than especially high in less deprived areas:

    This pattern was generally similar for the Income and Employment domains of deprivation. This does not necessarily mean there are more actual potholes in these areas, but possibly that people in areas with higher income and levels of employment are more likely to report them. 

    Examining reports using the deprivation subdomain that measures difficulty accessing services (GPs, supermarkets, etc) shows a different pattern, where a disproportionate amount of pothole reports are made in areas with the least access to services

    The access to services measures in Scotland and Wales also reflect that the least accessible places have  a large number of pothole reports compared to the general dataset:

     

    The area with the worst access to services (typically a measure of distance to services) has a disproportionate amount of total pothole reports on FixMyStreet. This doesn’t necessarily indicate this is where most of the potholes actually are, but more remote, less traffic-ed potholes will rank lower in risk-based calculation than those on busier roads, and hence may go longer without fix, and make a report on FixMyStreet more likely.

    Repeat potholes

    Fixing potholes is a never-ending task, as they are an inevitable result of erosion of roads over time. That said, poor repairs will make the return of a pothole more inevitable than it might be. The issue isn’t just that  the same pothole returns: if a pothole initially formed because the road surface was poor, others are likely to form in the same area too. 

    Looking at reports on FixMyStreet up to the end of 2016, for 3% of potholes a new pothole was later reported within 10m between six months and two years after it was first reported (with an average time lag of 15 months). Expanding that ratio to a 20m radius, 7% of potholes had a new pothole reported in the same time range. 

    While FixMyStreet’s data on potholes is far from universal, the geographical range gives us better scope than any single local authority’s data to see how reporting of potholes relates to social factors. You can examine this data yourself, on our geographic export, which gives counts of different categories of report by LSOA. 

    Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

  6. Who uses WhatDoTheyKnow?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    When people make their first Freedom of Information request using WhatDoTheyKnow they are sent an email two weeks later, asking them to complete a survey.  This survey has been running from 2012 and in that time has received 6,861 replies. Because this is an optional survey and not a requirement of making a request, this is a small proportion of the number of first time requesters in that time (around 3-4%).  This response rate reflects that the survey is currently quite long and asks questions that, while more useful when the service was new, are now less helpful in understanding its ongoing impact. 

    As it’s unclear how representative this sample is of requesters of WhatDoTheyKnow, the overall results shouldn’t be read as authoritative of the user base. What is more interesting is how different groups of respondents use the site in different ways. The data from the surveys has been added to the explorer minisite, a research tool that uses chi-square tests to examine if there is a statistically significant difference in the distribution of responses.

    Survey demographics

    Looking at the overall picture, the average age of respondents is around 45-54. 

    There were more than double the number of male respondents as female respondents. 17% of respondents said they had a disability. Disability is a broad category where self-identification can vary, which makes comparison to national figures difficult. However in 2011, 8.5% of the population of England and Wales were ‘limited a lot’ in their daily life as a result of a health problem of disability, while 9.3% were ‘limited a little’. This suggests that use of WhatDoTheyKnow is not broadly different  from the national picture – however this could be disguising variation within different kinds of disability. 

    There is a good spread of income ranges among respondents — but the average respondent has a greater income than the UK median of around £28,000.

    43% of respondents were working full time, 10% were working part time and 21% were retired. A majority (57%) were university educated. 

    On ethnicity, most respondents declared ‘British’ or ‘English’. 16% were part of a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) group. Because of the small number of responses over a large range of ethnicities, a second ‘reduced’ option was created by grouping responses that just presents BAME/Not BAME/NA. This would make general trends statistically detectable, but may also disguise trends when different ethnic groups have effects in different directions. 

    Over time there is a small number of trends. There is a slow rise in the number of female respondents – from 24% to 33% in 2019. There was statistically a larger proportion of BAME respondents in  2015 and 2016 (19-20%) and fewer in 2012-13 (13%). The number of respondents with disabilities does not show any significant differences between years.

    Authority type

    BAME respondents are more likely to write to Education, Central Government and Other than the general dataset, and less likely to write to health, local government, emergency services, military services, and media and culture.  BAME survey respondents make up 5% of requests to media and culture and 29% of education respondents. 

    Female respondents are more likely than male respondents to write to education and health authorities than the general dataset, and are less likely to write to emergency services, media and culture, transport, and military and security services. Female survey respondents make up 14% of requests to military and security services, and 40% to education. 

    Respondents with disabilities are more likely to write to health-related authorities and the emergency services than the general dataset, and less likely to write to transport and education. Respondents with disabilities make up 9% of requests to education authorities and 26% for health authorities.

    Retired respondents are more likely to write to environment-related and local authorities, and less likely to write to central government and education. Retired respondents make up 7% of requests to education authorities to 33% for environment-related authorities . 

    Reversing the lens to look at one type of authority, respondents writing to education authorities are more likely than the general dataset to be female (but still majority male) and more likely to be part of a BAME group (but still majority white). They are more likely to be below the age of 24 and less likely to be above 55 than the general dataset and (related to that) more likely to be in education and less likely to be retired. 

    Message concern

    46% of respondents said they were writing on behalf of ‘all people in the community’. This group was more likely to be retired, less likely to be part of BAME group, but more likely to be part of a community group (but not a political group alone). 

    20% said they were writing on behalf of themselves/family as well as similar people. 

    14% said they were writing on behalf of all people — this group was slightly more likely to be earning less than 12,500, have excellent internet access, and more likely to be involved in political activity (less likely to be part of a community group), to have made FOI requests before, and to make lots of FOI requests.  

    13% said they were writing on behalf of themselves or family. This group has a spread on age, but is more likely to be older than 75 (and less likely to be 45-54) than the general dataset. 46% are still university educated, but this is less than the general dataset and this group is more likely to be have secondary or technical college qualifications, and slightly likely to be part of a BAME group than the general dataset (while still majority not BAME). This group is more likely to not be involved in groups or to previously have made requests.

    Previous FOI use

    The profile of a user who had never made a request before using the site is in many respects similar to other users. This group contains slightly more 25-34 year olds and those in full time education. They are more likely to be making requests where the information is mostly relevant for themselves/family or people similar and more likely to not be involved in community or political groups.

    What’s next?

    While this survey has found some interesting things about our users, it’s currently overly-long and has a much lower response rate than some of our comparable surveys. We’re looking at the best way of modernising the questions and survey platform to replace this survey, while maintaining continuity with some of the trends identified above. 

    Photo by Shawn Ang on Unsplash

  7. TICTeC 2020: schedule now online

    We’re delighted to announce the schedule for TICTeC 2020, our two-day conference that focuses on the use and impacts of Civic Tech around the world. If this sounds good to you, you’d better book now, because spaces are limited.

    Thanks to our sponsors, TICTeC is returning for its sixth year and this time will be held in Reykjavik on 24th and 25th March 2020. Councils in Iceland are pioneers in using digital tools to elicit feedback and engagement from its citizens on policies, expenditure and projects, so TICTeC 2020 will be a really unique occasion to hear about these, as well as many other innovations from across the world.

    You can find out all about TICTeC over on the event’s website, and get a flavour of what Iceland is like as a place to visit in this video:

     

  8. When people report issues on FixMyStreet

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    Just as there is interesting information to gain from where people make reports, there are also interesting things to discover from when an issue was reported. 

    There are four interesting times in the life of a FixMyStreet report:

    1. When a problem happened
    2. When a problem was noticed
    3. When it was reported
    4. When it was fixed

    In the FixMyStreet dataset we have lots of information for when a problem is reported, but less about the other times. A follow-up survey gives us some idea if a problem was fixed inside a month –but this isn’t universally responded to. 

    Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama (2018) examined FixMyStreet data and found some signs that enough reports are made close enough to the time of time a problem is noticed that they show a statistical difference. Using reports of broken streetlights (which should be more noticeable when it’s dark), they showed that more reports were made at night compared to other kinds of reports. 

    This analysis is replicated on the Explorer minisite, which shows that more problems with street lights are reported during the winter months; and also that they are disproportionately likely to be reported during darker times of day than other reports as a broken streetlight is more noticeable at night (while other kinds of problems become less obvious). The below graph shows when street light problems were reported. While a fair number of reports are made during daylight (reflecting that not all issues are reported close to when they were observed, or that some street light problems are noticeable during the day), compared to the dataset as a whole the nighttime reports for this category stand out.

    Potholes are reported at the start of the year, and disproportionately in the afternoon. Dog fouling is also reported more at the start of the year, but this is more of an early morning report, with a peak as people arrive at work towards 9:00 am:

    Some patterns reflect how people’s activity changes when not working. Issues in parks and open spaces are reported more at the weekend, while potholes are reported more during the week

    While some problems are driven by physical processes that raises their occurrence at certain times of year and their report at certain times of day, other reports result from the activity of other people. Rubbish is reported in the morning, but also has peaks on Sunday (following Saturday night) and Monday, as regular commuters return. 

    Similar to the idea that more 311 reports are made in spaces that are contested between different communities, Solymosi and colleagues suggest that reports can also be driven by the handover of the same space between different groups: “The narrative descriptions included with [FixMyStreet] reports reveal that these reports are made by people who are waking up to go to work, and encountering signs of activity that took place in the same location, but at a different time. They see signs of another activity in the space their routine activity pattern takes them through but is incongruent with their current use of this space, and interpret these as a signal disorder, attributing meaning which can result in heightened fear or anxiety.”

    For people writing to their representatives on WriteToThem, there are similarly differences in when people write to different kinds of representatives. These might be times people are exposed to something that makes them want to write to their representative, or when they have the time to write.  Compared to all messages sent through WriteToThem, people writing to MPs are more likely to be writing before work and in the late afternoon, while Councillors are sent more messages  between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm

    While few people write during the night, compared to other types of representative messages are written to Lords more often at night. Looking at the gender of people writing to MPs, the data shows that men are disproportionately likely to be writing at night compared to women (although again, most messages by men are still sent during the day).

    Examining the time people make reports helps to create a better picture of when people encounter an issue that a mySociety service might be helpful for, as well as when people have time to do something about it. This suggests possible ways a service could be differently reactive at different times of day and helps sharpen potential research questions.

    Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

  9. Climate Crisis – the one thing we’ll be talking about this year

    If you’ve had a look at our annual report for 2019 you’ll know that we’re a busy bunch at mySociety, keeping lots of useful civic services running and talking about our work on an almost daily basis.

    In 2020 we’re going to be doing something a bit different.

    You’ll still hear from us regularly through our blogs and research and conference, but we’re going to be talking about one thing above all else – the climate crisis.

    We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts. And thanks to your contributions towards the successful crowdfunder for TheyWorkForYou, we’ll be able — along with other much-needed improvements and updates — to help you hold the new parliament to account on how they respond to the climate emergency.

    You’ll still hear from us on transparency; we’ll be helping people make the most of WhatDoTheyKnow to request information from public bodies on how they are responding to the crisis, and we’ll be looking at how we might apply our long experience of improving access to public information to similar private sector services in areas like pensions and investments – where divestment from fossil fuels is urgently needed.

    When we refer to community, and especially our work with FixMyStreet, we’ll be underlining how important it will be to support local democracy and help create resilient flourishing communities if we’re to mitigate how our changing climate will hit the least well off in society.

    One focus, one reason

    We are doing this for one simple reason – there really is not a more important issue facing our society today.

    We can’t address the climate crisis without also addressing the parallel democratic crisis we face in many countries around the world, where lies, deceit and fake news have become normal paths to power.

    We can’t solve issues like climate change without also addressing the lack of equality and fairness in society, where those with the least power and influence will be affected the most.

    And we can’t avoid the worst impacts without building and living with strong and resilient communities where every citizen can play their part.

    So we’ll be exploring what small role we might be able to play at mySociety — both improving our environmental impacts internally, and examining how we align our current and future work with the need to tackle the climate crisis. And alongside this you’ll still be able to report a pothole on FixMyStreet, or follow your MP on TheyWorkForYou on every other topic beyond the climate as usual.

    We’d encourage all our friends and colleagues in civil society, government and the private sector to consider what role they might play themselves both as individuals and through their organisations – and we hope you’ll also share your plans and we can learn more from each other in the year ahead.

    Photo by NASA on Unsplash

  10. Assessing success in Civic Tech: Measures of deprivation and WriteToThem

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    WriteToThem is a service that assists people in writing to their representatives. Given a postcode, it lists the associated elected representatives at every layer of government and provides a form to write an email to them.

    This can also be seen as a bundle of services. The main use of this website is to write to MPs, but this is just under half of messages ever sent (48%), with most messages sent to representatives in devolved or local government. Different services have different profiles of use and so need to have their effect judged separately.

    In 2015, the British Election Study asked whether people had contacted a “politician, government or local government official” in the prior 12 months and found that 17% had. Based on this, over 11 million adults wrote to a representative or official that year — and WriteToThem’s 187,000 emails accounted for 1.6% of this. These results also showed that 20% of men had made contact compared to 15% of women, meaning that 57% of those doing the contacting were men. Extending this into a logistic regression shows that older respondents and those with higher levels of education were more likely to contact, with no significant difference for income and ethnicity once age and education were controlled for.

    Demographic profile of WriteToThem users

    Looking at the profile of people writing to MPs using WriteToThem, there is an uneven use by different demographics. Over all time,  60% of messages sent have been from men and  60% of people writing had written before. Using the index of multiple deprivation, more messages are sent by better off areas, with 55% of messages being sent by the less deprived half of the country, and 7% of messages coming from the most deprived decile (you would expect 10% if this were evenly divided).

    There is a clear linear pattern of greater employment and income in an area being associated with a greater amount of messages sent.  Most of these gradients are slight, but in aggregate the effect is that WriteToThem reflects existing divisions in participation (although there are no good sources for the demographics of people who write to MPs specifically) .

    But is this actually a problem? Should a service be judged for the proportion of existing represented groups making use of it, or what it does for the under-represented groups who do use it? WriteToThem has delivered 73,000 messages to MPs from people in the most deprived IMD decile alone, if this has led to dialogues that resolved issues that would not otherwise have happened, this is a positive regardless of whether the same is also true for more people in the least deprived areas. If WriteToThem lowers the cost of contact by making it easier, then it is unsurprising that many of the people making use of it would have made contact anyway — but also included in that are people who were previously unable to engage in the process.

    When we look at the result of the survey asking whether a user of WriteToThem was writing for the first time, we can see that people from the bottom three IMD deciles were statistically more likely to be writing for the first time (this is also true when just looking at people writing to MPs, and when just looking at 2018). While generally the number of people using the site for the first time has decreased over time, this decline is demographically uneven and mostly occurs in less deprived areas.

    For the complete time-span of the service, 47% percent of survey respondents in IMD 1 (most deprived) were writing for the first time compared to 38% of IMD 10 (least deprived). Looking at just 2018, this was 48% compared to 35%. While the service as a whole is used more by people in less deprived areas, of those using it in less deprived areas it is successfully facilitating a higher proportion of first time contacts.

    The local picture

    To return to the idea of bundles, WriteToThem is also quietly solving a much harder problem than contacting MPs. While people generally recognise their MP when prompted with a name, local councillors remain far more anonymous. From 2007 to 2018 WriteToThem has helped constituents send 450,000 emails to their local councillors (42,000 in 2018). This service has an effectively even gender ratio (with a female majority in 2018), with more reports coming from more deprived areas (54% by more deprived half).

    If we imagine one of these bundled services being a site named “WriteToYourCouncillor”, it is in many respects a model service, with a user base displaying an even gender ratio, and more likely to be used in deprived areas. That in reality it is one function of a more well-used service in terms of numbers somewhat obscures this.

    But while it is good to recognise where services are successfully reaching people we want to reach, it is also important to think about volume and overall impact.  One issue with a service used more by men or in better off areas might be if it shapes how resources are deployed or provides a false shape of the views of constituents (and emails received are certainly used by MPs to build a picture). Even a service that adequately represents under-represented groups may be ineffective if it exists in a wider ecosystem that does not.

    At the moment, the systematic effect of any bias in WriteToThem outputs is marginal as WriteToThem accounts for a small fraction of parliamentary mail.  While the amount of physical mail entering the Houses of Parliament each year has decreased steadily, in 2018 it was still 24 times larger than the number of emails sent to MPs via WriteToThem. The average MP received 94 emails via WriteToThem in 2018; most MPs would receive more than this through other means in a week.

    Returning to the British Election Study finding that 57% of contacting in 2015 was done by men, the equivalent figure for WriteToThem as a whole in 2018 was 55%. Being generous and bearing in mind the previous finding that the method used to assign gender from name undercounts women, this could be seen as a marginal improvement on the real world. However, it would be a marginal improvement in a pool that only represents 1.6% of the total amount of number of messages.

    Defining success

    Based on the above, we can think about three different kinds of ‘success’  of a civic tech service in serving under-represented groups:

    Relative – The service improves under-representation relative to the current standard. e.g. a service where 60% of usage was by men is an improvement over an offline status quo of 70%.

    Absolute – The service adequately (or over-) services under-represented communities to what would be expected based on their numbers in the general population.

    Systematic – The service successfully services under-represented communities and is successful enough that this redresses issues of representation in competitor services/methods.

    Working with these, we could say WriteToThem is a success on a relative level, servicing people in more deprived areas more than they would have been otherwise (larger proportion of first time writers), but not to the proportion of the population these groups represent.

    The “WriteToYourCouncillor” part of the bundle is  a success on an absolute level, providing a relatively even amount of representation, with a slight weight towards groups who typically make contact less often.

    But neither really makes a dent systematically. They may be redressing inequalities of access for individual users (which is good), but cannot significantly adjust inequalities in volume of messages and the corresponding perceptions of problems.

    Making a dent in this problem is outside the scope of WriteToThem — and probably should be. While you can imagine a future where WriteToThem continues to lower the barrier to contacting representatives,  this is likely to create new users from currently-represented groups for each under-represented person successfully reached. Targeted interventions and partnerships with other organisations can avert this problem in terms of helping individuals make contact about their issues but turning the problem around, this is a platform that is unlikely to provide a balanced view of opinions and priorities of constituents.

    If it is a problem that representatives have systematically skewed visions of the problems and views of their constituents, is an email platform that requires citizens rather than representatives to do work the best way to address that? A civic tech solution to this problem might look more like Consul (or similar general participation platform) than WriteToThem – but even explicitly designed online platforms still risk being skewed towards the online and present members of the community. Exploring better forms of local participation is something currently being explored through our Public Square project.