1. Keep It In The Community: a snapshot of ACVs across England

    Keep It In The Community LogoOver the past few months we’ve been periodically updating you on the progress of our website for mapping Assets of Community across England. Now, we’ve officially launched.

    Keep it in the Community, or KIITC for short (pronounced ‘kitsy’), currently shows a snapshot of over 5,000 England-wide registered ACVs. We hope that researchers of all sorts will use it as a resource.

    A nationwide picture

    Since the introduction of  the Localism Act, community groups up and down England have been taking advantage of the opportunities it affords to nominate places and spaces as Assets of Community Value.

    And while the Act also requires local authorities to maintain and publish a register of such Assets, one thing has been missing: the ability to see a picture of how these rights are being used across the country as a whole.

    Do some regions contain substantially more ACVs than the norm? Are more applications rejected in some places than others? And just how many Assets of Community Value have been identified to date?

    We believe this sort of inquiry is essential if we’re to understand the efficacy of the Act and whether it’s achieving what it was designed to do, and now KIITC makes that possible.

    Scaled back ambitions

    As you may recall from our previous posts, our original ambition was not only to gather together and publish all the existing data from the ACV records of England’s many councils, but also to invite community groups to submit new applications to their local authorities, directly through the website. From long experience in similar projects, however, we knew that there would be challenges, and indeed this turned out to be the case.

    While all councils are legally required to display this data, they’re not given any guidance as to the format in which it should be displayed, and the huge variety of different formats, together with the frequency with which the location of the files in which they are published change, make an automated approach almost impossible, especially within a resource- and time-constrained project.

    These factors make it hard to sustain what is really the only practicable approach for a project with limited funding — the automated ‘scraping’ of websites. Scraping sends a small script out onto the web to regularly check whether new data has been added to a location; in this case, each council’s ACV register. A piece of code can retrieve the data and put it into the right format to be republished on your own site: it’s how we published Parliamentary debates each day on TheyWorkForYou.com for many years, for example.

    But this is really only a practical option when everyone is publishing in one of a few standardised formats.

    What would be a solution? Well, in an ideal world every authority would be putting their records out as lovely, consistent data.  But we understand that this is rather an unrealistic expectation.

    A data snapshot

    Faced with these difficulties, we met with Power to Change, who originally funded the work. We were in agreement that, sad though it was to set aside the other features of the project, there was still great value in collecting a snapshot of all ACV data across England.

    So, ambitions of scrapers accordingly readjusted, we manually entered all the relevant councils’ registered ACVs and uploaded them to the site. Please note that some data may not be 100% accurate; it all depends on what we were able to collect at the time.

    The most comical result of this is that assets where we don’t have a precise postcode for location may appear to be floating in the middle of the ocean… but these are the minority. And it’s worth remembering that the dataset as a whole is the best available right now.

    Of course, the data will quickly become out of date, but we believe that this unprecedented collection will have many uses, nonetheless.

    For the moment, we won’t be updating the site with future data, unless further funding becomes available for us to do so. We’ve also put plans for community group submissions on the back burner for now, aware that if we are to provide this service, we need to better what is already out there on the councils’ own websites.

    The future

    When time allows, we’d like to explore ways to encourage citizens to help keep the site up to date, allowing them to update data that has already been imported, and consider how they might suggest new ACVs to their relevant council via the website.

    As part of that vision we’ll need to reach out to councils to demonstrate how we have visualised the data, and work with them to participate.

    Open data projects such as these rely on identifying useful and practical ways for public sector organisations to more easily release data in a common and consistent format so that others can make best use of the information — a task that has much wider implications for all sorts of niche datasets such as this.

    If you’d like to find out more please get in touch with us at hello@keepitinthecommunity.org: we’d be keen to hear from you if you’d like to help us trial managing your own data on the service.

    Thanks again to Plunkett Foundation, Power To Change and MHCLG for their support in making this happen.

  2. Open data on elected Politicians and the power of community

    You may remember that thanks to a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, mySociety has been working to support increasingly authoritative data on the world’s politicians, to exist on Wikidata as a key part of developing the concept of the Democratic Commons.

    And, this summer mySociety welcomed two members of staff to support with the community work around both Wikidata and the Democratic Commons. In May, I (Georgie) joined in the role of ‘Democratic Commons Community Liaison’ and in late June I was joined by Kelly, mySociety’s first ever ‘Wikimedia Community Liaison’… and it’s about time you started to hear more from us!

    I’ve been climbing the learning curve: exploring the potential moving parts of a global political data infrastructure,  finding out how the communities of Wikidata and Wikipedia operate, attempting to take meaningful notes at our daily meetings for the tool the team developed to improve political data on Wikidata and making sense of the complexity in creating interface tools to interpret the political data already in Wikidata. Oh, and supporting a “side-project” with Open Knowledge International to try and find every electoral boundary in the world (can you help?).  

    And if you are in any of the relevant open Slack channels (what is Slack?), you may have seen my name on the general introduction pages, as I have been shuffling around the online community centres of the world — off Wikidata Talk that is — trying to find  the people interested in, or with a need for, consistently and simply formatted data on politicians, but who aren’t already part of the Wikidata community.

    That’s because, the issue the Democratic Commons seeks to address is the time-consuming business of finding and maintaining data on politicians, work that we suspect is duplicated by multiple organisations in each country (often all of them having a similar aim), that is slowing down delivering the stuff that matters. This has certainly been mySociety’s experience when sharing our tools internationally.

    And the solution we propose  — the Democratic Commons — is that if people and communities worked together to find and maintain this data, it would be better for everyone…  ah the paradox of simplicity.

    Update on efforts to support the Democratic Commons concept

    With each interaction and conversation that we’ve had about the Democratic Commons with partners, we’ve continued to learn about the best role for us to play. Here are some initial actions and thoughts that are shaping the work; please feel free to comment, or even better,  get involved  🙂

    Making sure the concept is a good fit through user research
    We have set a goal to carry out user research on the concept of the Democratic Commons. So far, we have lined up calls with campaign staff  (who are interested in using and supporting open political data through their UK campaigning work) and journalists in Nigeria (who have expressed a need for the data) and I am lining up more calls — if you have a need for or can contribute political data, let’s talk.

    Bringing the Open Data/Civic Tech and Wiki communities together?
    From my experience to date, the Civic Tech and Wiki communities appear to operate quite separately (I am very open to being proved wrong on this point!).

    I am just getting started within the Wikidata/ Wikimedia communities (that’s more for Kelly) but on the Open Data/ Civic tech side,  there are questions about data vandalism and the potential to trust the data from Wikidata, arguments on the benefit of using Wikidata (especially where you already have a lot of useful data) and on whether there is a need to invest time in learning SPARQL, the query language that allows faster retrieval and manipulation of data from databases.

    Misconceptions are not unusual in communities online or offline, but it is a gap that our work focus, communications and tools hope to help close. If you have ideas on blogs, video tutorials or articles to share to read around these concepts, please get in touch.

    Working openly in existing global communities (off Wiki)
    We are aware that, off-Wiki mySociety is leading the work to develop the Democratic Commons, however, we know that we need to be delivering this work in the open for it to be owned by other people outside of mySociety, and finding the right homes to talk about it (off Wiki) has been important.  In order to work openly, we have a shared #DemocraticCommons Slack channel with mySociety and Code for All; see ‘Get involved’ below to find out how to join the conversation.

    We also plan to document the learning involved in the process through blog posts and documentation, to be uploaded publicly.

    And, supporting local communities to develop, where possible
    A global network such as Code for All is very useful in supporting a concept like the Democratic Commons, however, the bulk of need for the data will likely be country-specific. Together with our partners and collaborators, we are exploring what is needed and how to support local communities:

    • Through the remainder of our Wikimedia Foundation Grant, we are supporting community events and editathons: in Lebanon with SMEX, in France with newly formed organisation F0rk, and in Spain with Wikimedia España.
    • Some groups we are working with, such as Code for Pakistan, plan to set up a channel on their Slack instance and use their Whatsapp community to discuss the data use and maintenance.  
    • In my own country, the UK, we are talking to mySociety’s community and collaborators to understand how the Democratic Commons could benefit organisations and work in practice here. If you want to be involved in this work, please contact me.
    • We are listening to understand what support is needed with collaborators in the global South, as we’re well aware that it is a lot to ask people to work on a voluntary basis and that adequate support is needed. I hope we can share the learning and use it to shape any future projects that may emerge.

     

    How to get involved in the Democratic Commons?

    • Contribute to the Wikidata community: If you are Wikidata user, or keen to learn,  visit the Wikidata project page on political data. If you need guidance on tasks, do feel free to add to the Talk page to ask the community, or get in touch with Kelly, our Wikimedia Community Liaison: kelly@mysociety.org.
    • Join the conversation on Code for All Slack:  If you would like to join the Slack conversation, join here: https://codeforall.org/ (scroll down and find the ‘Chat with us’ button).
    • Look for electoral boundary data: We are working with Open Knowledge to find electoral boundary data for the whole world. See more about that here.
    • Keep up to date and subscribe to our Medium blog: Sometimes these Democratic Commons posts are a bit too in-depth for the general mySociety readership, so for those who are really interested, we plan to share all we are learning here.
    • Share the concept with contacts: Please share the message on your platforms and encourage potential users to take part in research and get involved. We recognise that our view  — and reach — can only be anglo-centric, and we’d so appreciate any translations you might be able to contribute.
    • Tell us (and others) how you think you would use the data: This can’t just be about collecting data; it’s about it being used in a way that benefits us all. How would the Democratic Commons help your community? We would love people to share any ideas, data visualisations, or theories, ideally in an open medium such as blog posts.  Please connect with Georgie to share.
    • Something missing from this list? Tell us! We’re @mySociety on Twitter or you can email georgie@mysociety.org or kelly@mysociety.org .

    Image: Toa Heftiba

  3. A data refresh for Collideoscope

    As Zarino explained in his recent blog post, we’ve recently spent time talking to road safety advocates and cycling groups, as we prepare for some big improvements to Collideoscope.

    This has resulted in a shortlist of the tickets we’ll be working on, which you’re welcome to browse (and comment on, though this requires a GitHub account).

    Collideoscope, like many mySociety projects, is a website of two halves. On the one hand, it invites those involved in a cycling collision or near miss to contribute information to a database; on the other, it provides an output of all that aggregated data for planners, researchers, campaigners and anyone else who will find it useful.

    We’ll shortly be making some changes to the site so that its purpose and functionality are crystal clear; but in the meanwhile the next important step was to import the most recent batch of STATS19 data.

    STATS19 is the form the police fill in when road accidents are reported, lending its name to the dataset released annually by the Department of Transport. We include this data on Collideoscope alongside our users’ reports: we just take the reports which refer to cycling incidents, and with this latest update we’re now displaying everything from 2013 up to 2016, the most recent data available.

    That means, when you browse the site, you can see at a glance how many incidents have occurred in a specific area, not just from our users but from the primary national accident database too. Just click the checkbox (‘show reports from the Department of Transport’) at the top of the page to include them on the map.

    So that’s our most recent bit of housekeeping; now watch this space for some bigger changes to Collideoscope.

    Image: Charisse Kenion