1. You asked for it: new voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    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:

    David Cameron's voting record on the environment

    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.

     

    Image: Paul (CC)

  2. Do a friend a favour: point them towards the Donald Trump debate

    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.

     

    Image: Michael Vadon (CC)

  3. Have our sites helped you? Then please help us

    Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?

    FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou all provide an easy way for you, the public, to hold our elected representatives to account. They give you the power to get things changed.

    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.

    Donate now


    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

  4. Big Bang Data exhibition

    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.

    Data for the common good - a sign at the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House
  5. Understanding TheyWorkForYou’s users… without the power of mind-reading

    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.

    Just browsing

    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.

    Need suggestions?

    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.

    tailMost people don’t hang around

    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.

  6. How to contact your MP at just the right time

    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:

    future business subscribeNotice 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:

    confirm subscriptionAs you’ll see, this confirmation also teaches you a shortcut, if you ever want to search within Future Business directly: [keyword section:future]

    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.

     

    Image: Alexodus (CC)

  7. The Scottish Parliament returns to TheyWorkForYou

    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!

     

    Image: Mark Longair (CC)

     

  8. Everything about TheyWorkForYou’s voting information

    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

    MP's voting record

    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.

    show votes on TheyWorkForYouYou 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.

    plain English votes on TheyWokrForYou

    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

    voted consistently

    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:

    how Yasmin Qureshi differs from party colleagues on TheyWorkForYou

    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

    see full debate

    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:

    not enough info

    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.

     

  9. How far does your MP tread the party line?

    For a while now, TheyWorkForYou has shown how your MP voted on key topics.

    What it hasn’t done, until this week, is give a crucial piece of context. That is, how do your MP’s votes differ from those of their colleagues in the same party?

    We all know that, on many issues, the whip ensures that MPs vote according to the party line rather than their own convictions. So in theory, by examining the votes which diverge from the majority party vote, we might get the clearest picture of what an MP truly cares about.

    And now, we’ve added a small piece of code to the site, which allows us to do just that. At the top of your MP’s page, you’ll now see text along these lines:

    stephen phillips voting in parliament

    If your MP never disagrees with their party, you’ll just see the top line followed by a random selection of votes.

    The importance of wording

    The screenshot above shows another small change we’ve made to TheyWorkForYou: just a matter of wording, this time.

    When we first started displaying how MPs had voted, we used terms such as “voted strongly for”, “voted moderately against”, etc. This was to allow us to represent a range of positions along a spectrum for each topic.

    For every topic, such as EU Integration, or smoking bans, several different votes are analysed. The ‘show votes’ button, as seen above, takes you to a page where these are listed.

    However, we received a steady stream of emails, tweets and Facebook messages asking how an MP can vote ‘strongly’ or ‘moderately’ for something. To a fly-by reader, it seemed nonsensical, because of course they were thinking of that fact that MPs vote for or against a single motion.

    To counteract this, we’ve used words which we hope encapsulate the concept of a series of votes over time – words like ‘consistently’, ‘occasionally’ and ‘never’.

    Choosing these words proved to be harder than we’d anticipated, and, after a long heated discussion between colleagues, resulted in a straw poll asking anyone we could find to arrange pieces of paper in a line to indicate how they perceived their strength.

    We finally came up with an answer that the majority agreed on—and we haven’t had any mail on the subject since then. Let’s cautiously call that a win for careful wording.

    Image: Harry Potts (CC)

  10. New homepage for TheyWorkForYou

    Visit TheyWorkForYou’s homepage today, and you’ll see big changes.

    For some time now, we’ve been working on rolling improvements to TheyWorkForYou’s design, starting with MPs’ and Lords’ profile pages and voting records.

    These pages being the most visited, it made sense – but it did leave us with a shop window that did no justice to the goods within.

    High time for a new front page

    TheyWorkForYou’s homepage had not changed all that much since the site began in 2004: as new content such as committees or the devolved parliaments were added in, they simply got squeezed in wherever they would fit.

    This is the first time in a good few years that we’ve taken a step back, started again with a blank canvas and prioritised what’s important.

    Simpler, leaner, better-looking

    It tells you what the site is for

    Consistently, a good 60% of our users are first-time visitors to the site, so we need to make it very clear exactly what we do, and why they should care.

    It helps you find your MP’s information

    78% of the UK population don’t know the name of their MP (presumably that’ll be even higher for a while, post-election!). That’s why a postcode box, which matches you to your MP—and not a search box—is the most prominent input on the page.

    It highlights current affairs

    We know from experience that a large proportion of our users’ searches are based around issues that have just hit the headlines, whether that’s the latest budget, a ding-dong at Prime Minister’s questions, or a big news story.

    It’s not always obvious to a casual observer where to find the relevant debates: for example, in Hansard (the official record of Parliament, which is where our content comes from) the budget is called the ‘Autumn Statement’, while Prime Minister’s Questions is labelled ‘Engagements’.

    So now we have space to signpost the content that most visitors are likely to be looking for.

    It encourages you to subscribe to activity

    In a secondary but still prominent position, we signal that you can sign up for email alerts whenever your chosen MP speaks or your chosen keyword is mentioned. We hope that this will encourage still more people to engage on the things that matter to them.

    It offers other paths in to content

    If you’re just browsing, there’s still plenty of chance to see what’s new. Recent activity from Parliament is showcased on the lower half of the page, or you can riffle through all the different parliaments and types of debate in the top menu.

    A fitting gateway

    TheyWorkForYou still has all the same content, but now it has a homepage to be proud of, too.

    That homepage is still a gateway into rich data: an archive of searchable, shareable, readable debates going back to the 1930s, profiles and voting records for MPs and Lords both current and historic, and the calendar of upcoming events.

    With this new design, though, it should all be much easier to find. We hope you like it.