1. Parliamentary boundary changes

    Parliamentary boundary changes appear to be a source of confusion to many people and organisations. The facts are quite simple – parliamentary boundary changes, proposed by the various Boundary Commissions, do not take effect until the next general election. Until then, your MP remains whoever they have been, no matter what literature you may get through your letter box, or what anyone may tell you.

    As one example, take Birmingham City Council. Their page on constituencies and wards correctly states that Birmingham is divided into eleven parliamentary constituencies, but then goes on to list only ten – they are listing the new constituencies which do not yet exist, as Birmingham is losing one constituency at the next election. It appears that they have organised themselves along the new boundaries in advance – which is fine, but this doesn’t affect current Parliamentary representation, and so they should explain this clearly, as otherwise members of the public get confused (and blame us for giving them the “wrong” MP, when we haven’t done so). As you can see from the maps above (which highlight Birmingham, Hall Green), the constituencies will be changing their boundaries quite a bit, and we have had reports of people receiving letters from candidates in the next election who are MPs of different neighbouring constituencies, simply referring to themselves as an MP, which is a great source of confusion.

    An inhabitant of St Josephs Avenue, Birmingham (behind the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital), which is currently within the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency (red), and the Northfield ward of Birmingham City Council (green), would, on looking at Birmingham City Council’s website, assume they’re in a parliamentary constituency called Northfield. Northfield is currently the constituency to the west of Selly Oak; at the next election, its boundary with Selly Oak will change to the blue line, at which point St Josephs Avenue will be in the Northfield constituency. But not until then.

    Map of Streatham constituency at next election

    As another example (chosen purely as it has come up in user support), the Labour candidate’s website for Streatham had a page about the constituency – obviously you would expect a candidate to be talking about the future constituency, but would it hurt to add some explanation that Streatham is currently a slightly different shape?

    Boundaries of different things are all independent – if a ward boundary moves due to some local issue, the corresponding Parliamentary boundary does not necessarily change with it (probably not, in fact). So when Birmingham changed its ward boundaries back in 2003, they became out of sync with the Parliamentary constituencies. From the next election, things will be more in sync as the new Parliamentary boundaries are based on more recent ward boundaries, but this will again separate over time. All we can do is always clearly explain the current situation, and ask that others do the same.

  2. April Fools’ Day Council changes

    They could perhaps have picked a better day, as it was quite serious – at the stroke of midnight on the 1st of April, 37 district councils and 7 county councils in England ceased to exist, replaced by 9 new unitary authorities. This means people in Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Shropshire, Wiltshire, Chesire, and Bedfordshire only have one principal local authority to deal with now. The Wikipedia article on the changes has more information on the background to this change.

    Obviously this meant some work for WriteToThem and FixMyStreet, both of which require up-to-date local council information. Our database of voting areas, MaPit, has “generations”, so we can keep old areas around for various historical purposes. So firstly, I created a new generation and updated all the areas that weren’t affected to the new generation. Next, six of the new unitary authorities (all the counties except Cheshire and Bedfordshire, plus Bedford) share their boundaries and wards with the coterminous councils they’re replacing, so for them it was a simple matter of updating those councils to be unitary authorities.

    That left Bedfordshire and Cheshire. I created areas for the three new councils (Cheshire West and Chester, Cheshire East, and Central Bedfordshire), and transferred across the relevant wards from the old county councils – basically a manual process of working out the list of correct ward IDs.

    WriteToThem was now dealt with, but FixMyStreet needed a little more work. The councils that no longer existed had understandably disappeared from the all reports table, so I had to modify the function that fetches the list of councils to optionally return historical areas so they could be included. And lastly, FixMyStreet needs a way of mapping a point on a map to the relevant council. For this, it needs to know the area covered by a council, which was missing for the new authorities I’d manually created. Thankfully, each of the three new authorities are made up of the areas of either 2 or 3 district councils (e.g. Cheshire East is the area covered by Congleton, Macclesfield, and Crewe and Nantwich), so I just had to write a script that stuck those areas together to create the area of the new council. It all seems to work, and I’m sure our users will be in touch if it doesn’t 🙂

    So goodbye to Alnwick, Bedfordshire, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Blyth Valley, Bridgnorth, Caradon, Carrick, Castle Morpeth, Cheshire, Chester, Chester-le-Street, Congleton, Crewe and Nantwich, Derwentside, Durham City, Easington, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Kennet, Kerrier, Macclesfield, Mid Bedfordshire, North Cornwall, North Shropshire, North Wiltshire, Oswestry, Penwith, Restormel, Salisbury (which is getting a new town council), Sedgefield, Shrewsbury and Atcham, South Bedfordshire, South Shropshire, Teesdale, Tynedale, Vale Royal, Wansbeck, Wear Valley, and West Wiltshire. RIP.

  3. Postcode and boundary refresh

    We updated our boundary and postcode database at the start of the week (apart from two wards in Scotland that I misspelled and updated on Tuesday, sorry), so hopefully everyone in the country can contact their representatives at WriteToThem or have their postcode recognised on HearFromYourMP or TheyWorkForYou. This applies especially to a small number of councils, such as Bradford, for which the boundaries had completely changed at their last election and which we were unable to get working until now – apologies for the inconvenience.

    Related to this, and for interest, on 1st April, a number of councils are being abolished as their county councils become unitary authorities. The district councils within Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire, and Cheshire/Chester all disappear – Cheshire becomes two unitary authorities called Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East. Lastly, Bedford borough council becomes a unitary authority, and Central Bedfordshire council covers the area previously covered by Mid Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire.

    Parliamentary boundaries in England and Northern Ireland are changing, but these do not take effect until the next general election – until then, your constituency and MP remains the same.

  4. Postcodes on TheyWorkForYou

    If you enter your postcode on TheyWorkForYou and it’s Scottish or Northern Irish, you’re now presented with your MSPs and MLAs as well as your MP, which makes sense given the site covers their Parliament and Assembly respectively. 🙂 You also get an extra tab in the navigation linking through to Your MSPs or MLAs. In order to do this, I needed a quick way of determining if a postcode was Northern Irish or Scottish. Northern Ireland was easy, as all postcodes there begin with BT. I assumed Scotland was also easy, which turned out to be true apart from the TD postcode area that straddled the border like a mail-sorting Niagara Falls. After some very dull investigation, I eventually worked out that e.g. most of TD15 is in England, but (amongst others) TD15 1X* is in Scotland, except for TD15 1XX which is apparently back in England. The final result was the postcode_is_scottish() function in postcode.inc, which (hopefully) correctly determines if a given postcode is Scottish or not – perhaps someone else will find it useful.

  5. Love and support

    I’m still busy beavering away at the Facebook / PledgeBank integration. It all works now, but will take a bit more polishing to get just right. Matthew is, I think adding surveys to PledgeBank. So it finds out later if people have or have not done their pledge. Or is he updating to a new version of BoundaryLine at the moment, so our postcode lookup on WriteToThem and everywhere else gets better? Hard to keep track when he does so much at once.

    Keith is upgrading our internal documentation, so new people at mySociety can learn how to keep things going. Heather is stalking all of America, finding people to use and promote PledgeBank. Tom is on a much deserved holiday, after seemingly a zillion meetings per day for months.

    There’s lots of ongoing maintenance for all our sites. We’re lucky that large chunks of our customer support email are done by volunteers (thanks Anna, Louise, Tim and Tomski/James) and by Debbi (yay Debbi!). Much of this is routine – changing pledge text, updating council email addresses, giving MPs posting links for HearFromYourMP, putting new MP photos up on TheyWorkForYou etc. A lot of it is unique – handling new translations, answering questions from MPs and Lords about their voting record. I’ll let the others give some more examples of the kind of thing we answer.

    Speaking of which, do you know any good web developers who would like to work for mySociety? If so, put them in touch.

  6. Game, Set, and Matched

    The last batch of councillor data arrived this morning, thanks very much to GovEval, so pratically every council (bar all Scottish councils and the 17 English councils that had boundary changes, for which we’re just awaiting a new version of Boundary-Line, Ordnance Survey’s product that says where constituency boundaries are) should now be contactable again through WriteToThem.

    I’ve been doing some work on helping people promote our sites and the things on them – spurred by a request from a user who was holding a street party, we’ve made some posters and flyers for FixMyStreet (thanks to volunteer Ayesha Garrett for designing them), and we’ve started providing online tools to promote pledges on PledgeBank, including an up-to-date status image or text of a particular pledge, alongside the established, more offline, flyers.

  7. “When a rose dies, a thorn is left behind.”

    The first new councillor details have begun to automatically arrive in our database, thanks to GovEval. 34 councils were reactiviated on WriteToThem today, from Alnwick to Wokingham. It would have been 38 but the other 4 councils have had boundary changes that we don’t have the data for yet.

    16 of the 40 Welsh Assembly constituencies did not change their boundaries at the election (this took some time to work out, as the Press Association said it was 18, and the official report from the Boundary Commission for Wales said it was 17 🙂 ). Those 16 Assembly Members are now also reactiviated on WriteToThem, along with their regional AMs.

    Other than that, I’ve continued tweaking Neighbourhood Fix-It and started some work on TheyWorkForYou – the first step of which is to deal with the large backlog of mail that’s accumulated, leading to a number of bugfixes. Apologies to anyone who was trying to look at Brian Wilson MLA‘s page and found themselves stuck in an infinite loop of being told there were two Brian Wilsons. We also had a couple of emails asking us why Gordon Brown didn’t have a voting record on equal gay rights like other MPs. This was easy to answer – he’s never voted in any division that is included by that PublicWhip policy – and so an MP’s page now states if they’ve been absent from every vote on a particular policy.

  8. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

    Whereas new sites are lovely, and I talk about Neighbourhood Fix-It improvements further down, there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to go into making sure our current sites are always up-to-date, working, and full of the joys of spring. Here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to recently, whilst everyone else chats about database upgrades, server memory, and statistics.

    The elections last week meant much of WriteToThem has had to be switched off until we can add the new election results – that means the following aren’t currently contactable: the Scottish Parliament; the Welsh Assembly; every English metropolitan borough, unitary authority, and district council (bar seven); and every Scottish council. The fact that the electoral geography has changed a lot in Wales means there will almost certainly be complicated shenanigans for us in the near future so that our postcode lookup continues to return the correct results as much as possible.

    Talking of postcode lookups, I also noticed yesterday that some Northern Ireland postcodes were returning incorrect results, which was caused by some out of date entries left lying around in our MaPit postcode-to-area database. Soon purged, but that led me to spot that Gerry Adams had been deleted from our database! Odd, I thought, and tracked it down to the fact our internal CSV file of MLAs had lost its header line, and so poor Mr Adams was heroically taking its place. He should be back now.

    A Catalan news article about PledgeBank brought a couple of requests for new countries to be added to our list on PledgeBank. We’re sticking to the ISO 3166-1 list of country codes, but the requests led us to spot that Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man had been given full entry status in that list and so needed added to our own. I’m hoping the interest will lead to a Catalan translation of the site; we should hopefully also have Chinese and Belarussian soon, which will be great.

    Neighbourhood Fix-It update

    New features are still being added to Neighbourhood Fix-It.

    Questionnaires are now being sent out to people who create problems four weeks after their problem is sent to the council, asking them to check the status of their problem and thereby keep the site up-to-date. Adding the questionnaire functionality threw up a number of bugs elsewhere – the worst of which was that we would be sending email alerts to people whether their alert had been confirmed or not. Thankfully, there hadn’t yet been any such alert, phew.

    Lastly, the Fix-It RSS feeds now have GeoRSS too, which means you can easily plot them on a Google map.

  9. Rate-limiting service

    So, I’m about to start work on loading the next copy of the BoundaryLine electoral geography data into MaPit, which will give us 100% coverage of county councillors and fix some problems which we weren’t able to work around when we did this after last year’s election. But this is a tedious job and so I’m not going to talk about it now.

    Instead I’ll draw your attention to Ratty, our rate-limiting service, which is of general usefulness but (so far as we know) hasn’t been used by anyone outside mySociety. Our major use for it is in the anti-abuse rules in the WriteToThem back-end. I’m about to head out for lunch,so I won’t explain how the thing works in detail, but if this is the sort of thing that you think might be useful to you, leave a comment or drop a mail to hello@mysociety.org with any questions or comments. Like almost all our code, Ratty is licenced under the Affero GPL.

  10. WriteToThem maintaining itself

    Things have been quiet here recently, but are now getting busy again. Tom’s back from America, Chris is back from holiday, I’m better after being ill for most of last week.

    Earlier in the week we finally managed to load new county boundaries into MaPit. So WriteToThem once again has county councils working. Please try it out with your postcode. Let us know of any problems.

    This required lots of work from Chris, because a new version of BoundaryLine (from Ordnance Survey) has not yet been released with the updated boundaries. He’s done it using lists of the district council wards which make up the county electoral divisions.
    These lists were taken from the Statutory Instruments. This has covered most postcodes, but there are still some where the boundaries were specificed in text (walk along this river etc.) rather than wards. And we don’t have those.

    The last couple of days I’ve been turning on lots of things to automate updating of WriteToThem. A cron job now grabs new data on councillors from GovEval once a day, and merges their changes with any changes we’ve made.

    It’s automatically emailing GovEval with user submitted corrections to councillor data (the “Have you spotted a mistake in the above list?” link on WriteToThem). Hopefully this will create a virtuous feedback loop of ever improving data quality goodness. Or at least let us keep up with council by-elections without having to lift a finger.

    Finally I’ve made it send a mail once a week to the mailing list where WriteToThem admins (mostly volunteers) hang out. This describes what needs doing – such as missing contact details to gather, or messages in the queue which need human attention.

    Next up, wiring up the new screenscrapers Richard and Jonathan contributed last week, so the Welsh and London Assemblies automatically update…