Thanks to everyone who came to the inaugural mySociety Hack Night – and thanks too to our hosts, the Open Data Institute for such a great space to work in.
Topics ranged from community-building in post-conflict societies, to mountain rescue in Wales, via an extended front-end for WriteToThem which would put campaigns in context. It really showed what a lot of exciting ideas there are, just waiting for someone to launch into them.
We’ll be running these nights every Wednesday: we’re currently booking for the following dates, 6:00 -9:00 pm.
- 24th July – Open Data Institute
- 31st July – Open Data Institute
- 7th August – Open Data Institute
- 14th August – Mozilla London
- 21st August – Mozilla London
- 28th August – Mozilla London
- 4th Setember – Mozilla London
Places are restricted, so drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be sure of getting in. All you need is a little coding experience and a laptop.
We’d also like to start a conversation in the comments below, so that like-minded folk can think about hacking together. If you’re looking for people to help you with an idea, or if you see something you like the look of, leave a note below and try to synchronise which nights you’ll be attending.
Photo by Being Focal (CC)
Since its launch in 2005, WriteToThem has always covered all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Northern Ireland Assembly was the first body added to TheyWorkForYou after the UK Parliament, in late 2006. So whilst we certainly have not ignored Northern Ireland, it had always been an irritant of mine (and a cause of infrequent emails) that FixMyStreet only covered Great Britain.
This was due to the way it had originally been funded and set up, but those issues were in the past, due to a myriad of changes both internal and external, and it was now more a case of being able to find the resources to implement the necessary work. Late last year, mySociety worked with Channel 4 on the website for their series of programmes on The Great British Property Scandal. This used, in part, code similar to FixMyStreet to let people report empty homes, and it was required to work in all parts of the UK. So as part of that process, code was written or generalised that let aspects of FixMyStreet like the maps and place name lookup work for Northern Ireland locations.
It’s taken a few months since then to allocate the time, but we’ve now been able to take the code written back then, add various other bits, and incorporate it into FixMyStreet – which now covers the 26 councils of Northern Ireland, and the central Roads Service. Issues such as potholes, graffiti, and broken street lighting can be reported to Antrim or Newry and Mourne as easily as Aberdeen or Wyre Forest, and just as in the rest of the UK you can sign up for alerts based around your location or to your council.
All of us at mySociety love the fact that there are so many interesting new civic and democratic websites and apps springing up across the whole world. And we’re really keen to do what we can to help lower the barriers for people trying to build successful sites, to help citizens everywhere.
Today mySociety is unveiling MapIt Global, a new Component designed to eliminate one common, time-consuming task that civic software hackers everwhere have to struggle with: the task of identifying which political or administrative areas cover which parts of the planet.
As a general user this sort of thing might seem a bit obscure, but you’ve probably indirectly used such a service many times. So, for example, if you use our WriteToThem.com to write to a politician, you type in your postcode and the site will tell you who your politicians are. But this website can only do this because it knows that your postcode is located inside a particular council, or constituency or region.
Today, with the launch of MapIt Global , we are opening up a boundaries lookup service that works across the whole world. So now you can lookup a random point in Russia or Haiti or South Africa and find out about the administrative boundaries that surround it. And you can browse and inspect the shapes of administrative areas large and small, and perform sophisticated lookups like “Which areas does this one border with?”. And all this data is available both through an easy to use API, and a nice user interface.
We hope that MapIt Global will be used by coders and citizens worldwide to help them in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Our own immediate use case is to use it to make installations of the FixMyStreet Platform much easier.
We’re able to offer this service only because of the fantastic data made available by the amazing OpenStreetMap volunteer community, who are constantly labouring to make an ever-improving map of the whole world. You guys are amazing, and I hope that you find MapIt Global to be useful to your own projects.
The developers who made it possible were Mark Longair, Matthew Somerville and designer Jedidiah Broadbent. And, of course, we’re also only able to do this because the Omidyar Network is supporting our efforts to help people around the world.
From Britain to the World
For the last few years we’ve been running a British version of the MapIt service to allow people running other websites and apps to work out what council or constituency covers a particular point – it’s been very well used. We’ve given this a lick of paint and it is being relaunched today, too.
MapIt Global is also the first of The Components, a series of interoperable data stores that mySociety will be building with friends across the globe. Ultimately our goal is to radically reduce the effort required to launch democracy, transparency and government-facing sites and apps everywhere.
If you’d like to install and run the open source software that powers MapIt on your own servers, that’s cool too – you can find it on Github.
About the Data
The data that we are using is from the OpenStreetMap project, and has been collected by thousands of different people. It is licensed for free use under their open license. Coverage varies substantially, but for a great many countries the coverage is fantastic.
The brilliant thing about using OpenStreetMap data is that if you find that the boundary you need isn’t included, you can upload or draw it direct into Open Street Map, and it will subsequently be pulled into MapIt Global. We are planning to update our database about four times a year, but if you need boundaries adding faster, please talk to us.
If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how we built MapIt Global, see this blog post from Mark Longair.
Commercial Licenses and Local Copies
MapIt Global and UK are both based on open source software, which is available for free download. However, we charge a license fee for commercial usage of the API, and can also set up custom installs on virtual servers that you can own. Please drop us a line for any questions relating to commercial use.
Ah, summer: walks in the park, lazing in the long grass, and the sound of chirping crickets – all overlaid with the clatter of a thousand keyboards.
That may not be your idea of summer, but it’s certainly the ways ours is shaping up. We’re participating in Google’s Summer of Code, which aims to put bright young programmers in touch with Open Source organisations, for mutual benefit.
What do the students get from it? Apart from a small stipend, they have a mentored project to get their teeth into over the long summer hols, and hopefully learn a lot in the process. We, of course, see our code being used, improved and adapted – and a whole new perspective on our own work.
Candidates come from all over the world – they’re mentored remotely – so for an organisation like mySociety, this offers a great chance to get insight into the background, politics and technical landscape of another culture. Ideas for projects that may seem startlingly obvious in, say, Latin America or India would simply never have occurred to our UK-based team.
This year, mySociety were one of the 180 organisations participating. We had almost 100 enquiries, from countries including Lithuania, India, Peru, Georgia, and many other places. It’s a shame that we were only able to take on a couple of the many excellent applicants.
We made suggestions for several possible projects to whet the applicants’ appetite. Mobile apps were popular, in particular an app for FixMyTransport. Reworking WriteToThem, and creating components to complement MapIt and PopIt also ranked highly.
It was exciting to see so many ideas, and of course, hard to narrow them down.
In the end we chose two people who wanted to help improve our nascent PopIt service. PopIt will allow people to very quickly create a public database of politicians or other figures. No technical knowledge will be needed – where in the past our code has been “Just add developers”, this one is “Just add data”. We’ll host the sites for others to build on.
Our two successful applicants both had ideas for new websites that would use PopIt for their datastore, exactly the sort of advanced usage we hope to encourage. As well as making sure that PopIt actually works by using it they’ll both be creating transparency sites that will continue after their placements ends. They’ll also have the knowledge of how to set up such a site, and in our opinion that is a very good thing.
We hope to bring you more details as their projects progress, throughout the long, hot (or indeed short and wet) summer.
PS: There is a separate micro-blog where we’re currently noting some of the nitty gritty thoughts and decisions that go into building something like PopIt. If you want to see how the project goes please do subscribe!
Top image by Elaine Millan, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
Veronika has just updated us on the recent success of their NapisteJim.cz portal, clone of WriteToThem:
“The context: Last week, the Lower house of the Parliament had on table amendments to Lottery Act. Something very important was accomplished in this amendment (bigger rights for villages and cities in gambling regulation) but it also contained several very controversial paragraphs. Most notably, the Act commanded Internet providers to block ALL commercials and advertisements of lottery companies that are not registered in Czech Republic, moreover, under fine 10 million CZK.
This is 1) technically imposible (e.g. when working with Google AdSense and similar), 2) it creates grounds for further Internet censorship. Mainly the internet community rised up in protest which they expressed in several different ways which included e.g. internet petition but ALSO, thanks to our application, personal e-mail appeals to MPs. Again, more than 1 000 e-mails were sent!
The result: MPs decided to divide the amendment in parts on which they voted separately… the controversial paragraphs did not pass through, and still the good achievements were approved. We could not dream better result in this issue!”
Congratulations to the entire team! It looks like the traffic to the site, as well as amount of sent e-mails are very encouraging, so we hope to see more exciting updates in the future!
At mySociety we like transparency – it’s baked into most of our projects.
TheyWorkForYou attempts to make it easier to find out what your MP has been doing in Parliament. WhatDoTheyKnow tries to make it easier to find out what’s going on inside other public bodies. FixMyStreet and the upcoming FixMyTransport also use transparency to help get problems resolved.
We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.
Transparency can be useful because it means people outside an organisation can make critical, constructive suggestions about how you can improve, and it lowers the odds that people in one part of your own organisation will be ignorant of the activities of people in other parts.
We were not highly prescriptive in our instructions, and we certainly didn’t ask Tobias to ‘discover’ pre-determined findings. All we did was ask Tobias to find out who was coming to the sites, what they were doing, and whether or not the sites could be considered to be succeeding. We didn’t do it for a PR stunt: we did it so we could learn from our mistakes, and so that we could share those learnings with others who might benefit.
His detailed, quantitative analysis holds the sites up to mySociety’s own stated aims, for the first time. And we’ve published both documents, in full, below.
Swings and Roundabouts
It was great to discover that we have, indeed, attained some of our goals by running these sites. For example, one of the reasons we set up TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem was to make representatives accessible to people who were newcomers to the democratic process. It was therefore heartening to read that 60% of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives.
But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35. These figures and many more are available within these highly readable papers – Tobias did a terrific job in gathering and analysing a huge amount of data, and then making it easy to understand.
These reports are rich with data, from how visitor numbers boomed during the MPs’ expenses scandal to which MPs most people sign up to receive alerts about. You can also read how a budget airline almost brought a site to its knees in 2007; what part Joanna Lumley plays in our history; and how many visits to TheyWorkForYou actually come from within Parliament itself.
TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem have inspired many people around the world to set up similar (and not so similar) sites inspired by the vision of using the Internet to lower barriers to democracy. However, until now we’ve never seen a really clear-eyed assessment of what seems to work, and what doesn’t.
If you’re at all interested in using the Internet to engage people with democratic systems, Tobias Escher’s excellent research papers will make a compelling read. Thank you Toby!
…and do come back and tell us what you found interesting.
We hope to publish two evaluation reports like this at the start of each new year from now on. Next year’s sites will probably be FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow. Do get in touch if you’d like to input!
“The election system to Czech parliament is weird… quasi local based, quazi party based combines regional and state-wide components.
Basically people vote mostly for parties and their leaders, but they can vote only for candidates in their region. So when they hypotethically want to write to specific MP, they might want to write to one of their regional MPs because they are probably closest to the problem they are dealing with. But they might also want to write to one of the ‘faces’ of the political party, because it was actually him/her they voted for even though not directly. Or they might want to write specific committee (defence, finance, education etc.) even though there is not anyone from their region…”
Facing the above mentioned challenge the team has decided upon the following:
“For identifying the region, we decided to use Google maps and the API they provide. This means that when person enters even very incomplete adress we get information about which region or which part of the city it is in. If anyone has interesting experiences with this and want to share, please do:-)
But the really tricky part comes when discussing when (which step) and where (graphically) put the option for so to say ‘advanced search’ according to parties or committees, so it’s not disturbing those that want to use regional key and it’s easy to find for those that prefer other ways of identifying… comments are welcome:-)”
Yes, do let us know what you think is the best way forward or get in touch with the team directly on their blog.
As a result of the meeting in Belgrade KohoVolit.eu team will be joining the international team of developers working on cloning of the WriteToThem website in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe based on the Lithuanian beta site. Jaroslav has also sent us the requirements his team can forsee at the stage of the process:
“The features that are definitely needed in WTT for our countries are openness to implement a custom search of representatives to write to and a possibility of sending the message to more than one representative.
Another one is a customizable form for writing of the message – we have already discussed it with Darius at Saturday night and it is pretty simple to achieve by Django templating system. This can be employed also to template the initial message body and other generated e-mails.
Generally, the process of selecting the right representatives might be usefull to have separated from writing and sending of the message to such extent that allows implementation of the search in a different language. The results would be passed to the second step (writing of the message) in URL or in HTTP request by the POST method.”
We will keep you posted!
Update: You can read about it on the new KohoVolit.eu blog in English! We are really, really happy to see this new blog! Go and say hi to the team on their own site;)
Yesterday I have posted about the meeting in Belgrade, but I would like to add few words on the topic of communication.
KohoVolit.eu team has decided to host weekly Skype calls to ensure that the entire team is always up to speed with all developments, so I was fortunate that I could take part in the first one today. It looks like we will have another blog from them, this time on the project domain, so we will be able follow the more technical developments there. I find it really useful to be able to get in touch with all of them over Skype and hope to join them on a weekly basis.
Jaroslav is very happy with the meeting in Belgrade and starts discussions on how the team can join the idea of common platform for Write To Them. He finds the meeting really effective and looks forward to the next one.
I received the same feedback from Danko (Serbia). He found the chance to meet off-line and discuss various aspects of all projects really beneficial. In his words:
“Our projects are compatible with each other, so there is a common ground for cooperation.”
He pointed out that his background differs slightly from others, as he comes from a civil society organisation, but the key here is successful communication. Looks like the off-line meeting was exactly what they needed. Danko himself realised one more thing:
“It is really great that couple of us from different countries are creating something valuable that even citizens of other countries that are not involved in this project right now could use in the future.”
When I posted about the MP’s analysis conducted in 2009 by KohoVolit.eu, I promised more information about their Index and data collection. Michal Skop is the person responsible for this part of the project. First of all I have asked him about the methodology of the KohoVolit Index itself:
“It is changing – because we constantly improve it. The last year it was (a bit simplified): average of the numbers of MPs that were less active than the MP (in one of the measured things – interpellations, speeches, votes (presence), proposals). For example: MP X voted always and therefore s/he was better than all the other 199 MPs (who missed some). We add 199. The MP X has not proposed anything, had no interpellation and did not speak, but all the others have done it. So we count 3 times (interpellations, proposals, speeches) 0 (=no MP was worse than this X). We make average: (199+0+0+0)/4 = 49.25 (It was a bit more complicated, but generally we did it this way.)
I plan to change it for this end of the year and put more weight into “presence (to vote)”.
When asked about the data collection process, Michal responded:
“I use the scrapers I have done. So for “presence” I have all the divisions downloaded and processed, so I just run the query to count it. For the rest, there are a particular pages for each MP at the official website (like this one here, which is a list “reporter of proposals”) and we scrape them and just count it all.”
The new analysis is up from what I can see, so we should be able to provide you with more insights into this year’s methodology fairly soon.