As players were quick to notice, decisions made on our politician-sorting game Gender Balance were final. Thanks to volunteer coder Andy Lulham, that’s now been rectified with an ‘undo’ button.
Gender Balance is our answer to the fact that there’s no one source of gender information across the world’s legislatures—read more about its launch here. It serves up a series of politicians’ names and images, and asks you to identify the gender for each. Your responses, along with those of other players, helps compile a set of open data that will be available to all.
Many early players told us, however, that it’s all too easy to accidentally click the wrong button. (The reasons for this may be various, but we can’t help thinking that it’s often because there are so many males in a row that the next female comes as a bit of a surprise…)
In fact, this shouldn’t matter too much, because every legislature is served up to multiple players, and over time any anomalies will be ironed out of the data. That doesn’t stop the fact that it’s an upset to the user, though, and in the site’s first month of existence, an undo button has been the most-requested feature.
Thanks to the wonders of open source, anyone can take the code and make modifications or improvements, and that’s just what Andy did in this case. He submitted this pull request (if you look at that, you can see the discussion that followed with our own developers and our designer Zarino). We’ve merged his contribution back into the main code so all players will now have the luxury of being able to reverse a hasty decision. Thanks, Andy!
Our team member Richard has now analysed every single one of those votes, and his findings have been added to each MP’s information on TheyWorkForYou.
We hope that’s great news for users: it means that we can now present a really full picture of how your MP voted on key topics.
It’s also potentially useful for developers, eDemocracy hackers and campaign groups, who can pick up our data and use it as they please.
So what exactly is the data?
Often MPs vote on motions which are, at first glance, rather incomprehensible and cryptic. They might vote for example on a motion to accept:
Amendments (a) to (d) proposed in lieu of Lords amendments 1 to 4 and 6.
We’ve done the research to determine what MPs were actually voting on in each case, and turned their archaic language into plain English.
For every vote we’ve written a sentence to describe the effect of voting either “aye” or “no”. In relation to one MP’s vote on the evening of the 9th of July 2014 we write:
Mark Pawsey MP, Rugby voted for a residence test as an eligibility criteria for civil legal aid; subject to exceptions for refugees and those who have sought asylum.
In addition to describing every vote, we have decided whether it should be considered relevant to the topics we list on each MP’s page (see an example MP here, or check your own MP by inputting your postcode on the homepage, then clicking ‘voting record’ on your MP’s page).
If a vote was relevant to one of the statements we show on TheyWorkForYou, we then determined whether voting ‘aye’ or ‘no’ was a vote for or against the statement and if the vote was very important, or less important. By clicking on the green ‘details’ button beside each statement on an MP’s voting record you can see exactly which individual votes contributed to it as well as how we calculated which wording such as “moderately for” or “strongly against” to apply in each case.
Matters MPs have voted on since the 2010 general election have ranged from bankers’ bonuses to same sex marriage; from food banks to the “bedroom tax” (all of which have contributed to statements we show on TheyWorkForYou); from daylight saving to the regulation of hairdressers (neither included) – and plenty more. (We’ve written previously about how we select which topics to show on TheyWorkForYou.)
Of course, Parliament continues to hold votes, and we’ll be continuing to analyse the results as they come in – but it is good to know that we are bang up to date.
How can this data be used?
We have plenty of ideas ourselves, and we want to hear yours, too. With the forthcoming general election, one obvious use is for ‘who should I vote for?’ tools, which match users’ opinions with those of each party.
There’s also potential for comparisons between what constituents believe and what their elected representative has voted for.
No doubt there are many other ideas that haven’t even occurred to us yet – please do get in touch if you have ideas and you’d like to use this data.
This month we released a new version of FixMyStreet. Amongst the new features, fixes, and thingamajigs were some small improvements added by two volunteers, Andrew and Andy.
Even though these are not core pieces of functionality — in fact, precisely because they are not — we want to draw your attention to why they were included, and why this is a Very Good Thing. And perhaps, if you’re a coder who wants to put something into an Open Source project but hasn’t quite found a way in, Andrew and Andy’s work will nudge you into becoming a contributor too.
One of the axioms of Open Source is that, because anyone can read the source code, in theory anyone can contribute to it. In practice, though, it’s not really as simple as that. Both ends of the “anyone can contribute” idea require effort:
- Before contributing to a project of any complexity (as we hope you want to do), there’s often a lot to learn, or figure out, before any work can even begin;
- Before accepting contributions to such a project (keen as we are to do so), there’s an overhead of testing, checking, and managing the incoming code.
The ugly real world
The basic issue here is that software is complex — no matter how well-written, tested and documented program code is, if the problem it’s solving is in the real world, it’s not going to be simple.
This is especially true of anything used by the public, because often you can only make things seem simple at the front (such as a clean web interface or “user journey”) by working hard behind the scenes with data structures and processes that handle the underlying complexity. It’s inevitably true of any projects which have been developed over time — programmers like to use the term “legacy code” to describe anything that wasn’t written then way they’d choose to write it now.
Often the problems that software is solving are not quite as obvious as they first appear. At mySociety we’ve got a wealth of experience and actual usage data that ultimately changes the way we build, and develop, our platforms. We understand the fields we work in well (technically, the nerds like to call these the “problem domain”), whether it’s governmental practice or civic user behaviour, and that’s often knowledge that’s not encapsulated anywhere in the program code.
Furthermore, any established platform must protect against the risk that new changes break old behaviour — something that regression testing is designed to catch. This is especially important on platforms like FixMyStreet or Alaveteli where the software is already running in multiple installations.
This is why we have a team of full-time, experienced, and (thanks to our rigorous recruitment process) talented programmers who can invest the time and effort to be familiar with all these things when they set to work coding.
But this builds up to an impediment: sensitivity to any of these issues is enough to make anyone think twice about simply forking our code and starting to hack on it for us.
How it sometimes works
In practice, then, how does anything get contributed? How come it doesn’t all get written by our own coders?
The answer is, of course, we do work with major contributors outside our own team (have a look at the activity on our github repos to see them) — but it always requires a period of support and on-line discussion both before and during the process. There’s also the business of testing, and sometimes politely pushing back on, pull requests (which is how code contributions are submitted). But the fact of the matter is that this is only possible for people who are willing to spend time familiarising themselves with the specific code, technologies, and practices that we’re using on that project. These tend to be hard-code devs, and — here’s the point — they’re always experienced Open-Sourcers: this will never be the first time they’ve worked on such a project.
Which is where the little features come in.
The joy of small
We noticed this problem — that contributing code to our projects is simply not easy for us or for contributors. Importantly, it’s not just us: it’s Open Source everywhere. But we can’t simply dismiss the opportunity for contribution. We want to encourage coders to do this, because we believe that Open Source is intrinsically a good thing.
We do two things to make it easier to contribute:
- We identify small features that a coder can approach without a full understanding of the code and the problem domain;
- We help people (like you!) get started by opening up a laptop at our weekly meetups.
The first of these seems obvious now: when we add issues (an idea for a new feature, or maybe a bugfix) to our github repos, if we think they’re candidates for manageable, isolated work, we tag them with the label: Suitable for volunteers (like this).
Often these turn out to be “nice-to-haves” that one of our full-time devs can’t be pulled off more pressing problems to add just now. (Case in point: Andrew added a date-picker to the FixMyStreet admin stats page, and three of our own staff had stumbled upon and applauded the difference it had made within a week of it going live).
It means it’s much easier for you to get involved, because often it’s a little, isolated piece of code. And it’s much more manageable for us, because the change you’ll be submitting is also isolated.
So if you’re looking for something to tackle, pick one of those issues, and let us know (just to check nobody else has baggsied it already). Fork the repo, cut the code, write the tests, submit a pull request!
But wait — if that last paragraph made you gulp, here’s the second thing we do: meetups. Of course, this is less helpful if you can’t make it to London on Wednesdays, but the concept is sound. Put simply, if there is a barrier to entry to diving in, and if one-on-one time with a dev, and some pizza, is what it takes to overcome that, it’s time well spent for you to come and see us.
Not 100% confident with git? Not sure when
db/schema.sqlgets used or how we like to handle migrations? No problem: we’re happy to guide you.
If this has struck a chord with you — you’d love to be an Open Source contributor one day, and you think mySociety projects make the world a better place — perhaps you should take a poke in our repos, or come along to a meetup. Start small, but do start.
Oh, and Andrew and Andy — thanks guys 😉
Photo by Matt Katzenberger (CC)
Last week we asked what improvements you’d like to see on TheyWorkForYou. Thanks so much for all the comments on that post (do keep them coming). They’ve all been carefully documented on our development list.
Our standard way of working on a project like this is in ‘sprints’ – short periods of activity after which we can spend some time reflecting on what went well, and what could have gone better.
This system is great for ensuring that we don’t get involved in a large piece of work, only to realise that it doesn’t do what was intended, or hasn’t had the desired effect. So, for example, if we’ve added a new feature, we might be asking ourselves, ‘Is anyone using it?’, ‘Have there been any bug reports?’, and ‘Has it fulfilled our original aim?’. We’re striving to be as analytical and methodical as possible about these assessments, so part of the process has also been figuring out which types of metrics to collect, and how.
That said, what have we already done?
It’s easier to find a specific representative
Where previously our pages listing all MPs, all MSPs and all MLAs just contained one very long list of names that you had to search or scroll through, there’s now an A-Z navigation at the top. We also added the ability to find your own MP from this page.
Why? This is an example of a small usability tweak which should make a difference to a large number of people – not everyone knows how to search a web page with Ctrl+F. It’s also a fix that’s been on our to-do list for two years!
The addition of the ‘find your MP’ box helps to serve one of our core aims: to make democracy easy to understand for the uninitiated.
We’ve added ‘like’ and ‘follow’ buttons
We thought you might not notice these discreet additions to our page footers – but we’ve certainly seen an upturn on the rate at which people are ‘liking’ our Facebook page. Whereas Twitter – not so much. Maybe TheyWorkForYou users are just more Facebook-inclined?
Why? In part, this addition is for our own benefit – we welcome the opportunity that social media gives our users to spread the word. As a small organisation with no advertising budget, this kind of grass roots promotion is invaluable. Then, we are hoping that it will help us to understand our users. Clicking that ‘like’ button can be seen as a form of positive affirmation and enagement that it’s very hard to quantify by other means.
We are still considering the addition of buttons which would allow you to share specific debates with your social circles.
We have noted the comments on our last post which made it clear that some of our users do not welcome integration with social media. That’s fine – we’ll never do anything that excludes you from the core activities of the site, whether you use Facebook and Twitter or not – our intention is simply to provide the functionality for those who want it.
Those comments have been a useful reminder to us that we should continue to consult our users, because we can’t always predict what you might object to!
You can change your email address
If you have an account, now you can change your email address yourself.
Why? This was identified as a common request that often puzzled users, and took up support time on our side.
MPs’ pages will look better
You can’t see these yet, because they’re still in progress. Due to some quirks of the code in which the site was originally built, the new design for the MPs’ pages has taken longer to implement than we’d anticipated. But we’re getting there.
Why? MPs’ pages contain an awful lot of information, from voting history to recent appearances, and more. The redesign will help us present all this information more clearly, making the page just as easy to read on a mobile device as it is on a desktop, and simply bringing the (frankly, dated) pages a more current look.
Bullets are bullets
This is almost ridiculous, but we think it was worth attending to. In recent user tests, we noticed some confusion, caused by the fact that our bullet points were in the form of small squares – they were frequently mistaken for check boxes.
Why? Just to rid the world of that one small piece of frustration that occurs when you try to tick a box that is not, in fact, a checkbox.
As I say, we are still actively collecting and working on your feedback, so please do keep it coming. Comment below this post, or drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be reporting back after our next sprint.
Photo by William Warby (CC)
We’re good friends with the people at Mozilla. Every Wednesday, they welcome us into their London Moz space for our weekly meet-ups. They are champions of empowering possibilities of the web through Open Source software (a world we’re part of too). And they’re all so smart and lovely. So of course we’d been looking forward to this year’s Mozilla Festival for some time.
We had a table at the “Science Fair” on Friday night, where we literally had buckets of sweets (OK, they were little plastic buckets). Tom, our director, and Dave, from our international team, talked about mySociety’s work with anyone who came close. Perhaps people were drawn in by those sweets, or the FixMyStreet demo on the monitor, or even the (new!) stickers we had to give away… but regardless of the lure, we think they all learned a little bit more about how our platforms help empower people’s civic lives: from something as simple as reporting a flickering streetlight, to holding a public authority to account, to monitoring a whole parliament. (That’s FixMyStreet, Alaveteli, and Pombola, if you were wondering).
The Mozilla Festival’s venue was, once again, London’s astonishing Ravensbourne, right next to the O2 Millenium Dome. The setting magnifies the wonder of the event. Those big round windows make it feel like being in a spaceship made of Swiss cheese. The place is so open, and so vertical, that the activity and enthusiasm doesn’t just spread out, it spreads up. There is making and teaching, learning and sharing, going on across nine floors, and it’s easy to drift up and down from one themed space to another.
We met old friends. We got to hang out some more with our Chilean brothers-in-code from Ciudadano Inteligente, and the excellent Gaba from Uruguay’s DATA, together with the good people from the OKFN. We made lots of new friends too. And all this didn’t just happen at the sessions. A lot of serendipitous encounters took place by the Alchemy coffee stations. Or on the stairs (khun Toy and khun Hui — hi!). Or in the Alphabet City party venue, afterwards.
So a big “thank you” to that Fiery Fox, and an enthusiastic high five (yes, there was an unLondonlike amount of enthusiasm on show — possibly because quite a few of the attendees were over from the USA — which it is impossible not to be caught up by) to all the people we met at the event. Dave grinned his way through a wonderful Scratch tutorial from Code Club, met a whole array of cool people, got answers to some nerdy coding questions, and learnt about the awesome Hive learning networks… and lots more things besides. That already describes a great weekend. But beyond that, we hope we might see a few new mySociety-powered sites spring up elsewhere in the world due to sparks that were sparked at mozfest last weekend.
It was great to see everyone at the hacknight on Wednesday. This time, ideas ranged from using the FixMyStreet Platform for reporting of Trading Standards transgressions, to installing a Mzalendo for Greece. We hope that these ideas will flourish, and many others will arise at our future hacknights.
Talking of which, don’t forget to reserve a place if you’d like to come along. Hacknights are weekly. All the details are here.
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 email@example.com 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)
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.
My friend and mySociety’s first developer Chris Lightfoot died five years ago today. He killed himself in his own flat for reasons that we will never really know, but which are doubtless linked to the depression which he’d been fighting for years. He was just 28, but had already achieved so much that The Times ran an obituary of him. He would have laughed mightily about the fact that this is now behind a paywall.
To mark this occasion I wanted to write something for mySociety staff and volunteers who never knew Chris, and for a wider audience of people who work in places like GDS, Code For America or indeed anyone with an interest in politics and governance. What Chris represented is too important to be lost in the grief at his passing.
The basic fact to understand about Chris was that he was a very specific kind of polymath – one perfectly suited to the internet age. What I mean by this is that he did much more than simply master varying disciplines: he saw and drew connections between fields. He wouldn’t just master cartographic principles, engage in politics and, as Francis Irving put it, ‘write Perl like other people write English': he invariably saw the connections and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.
Moreover, this mixing of disciplines was conducted at a furious, restless pace, and knew absolutely no concept of ‘too hard’ – problems were either fundamentally impossible, or ‘trivially soluble’, to use one of his favourite and most gloriously under-stated phrases. Who else would build the technology to break a captcha, just to investigate what American truck rental costs tell us about internal migration in America, for fun? The answer is trivial.
That he was a genius is not what I want you to understand. Telling you that someone you never met was smarter than you is not helpful, and doesn’t fulfil my promise to tell you why understanding Chris matters.
What is fundamentally valuable about Chris’ legacy (besides piles of code that power services still running today) is that his story signals how we all need to change our conception of what it means to be ‘wise enough to rule’. Let me explain.
Unlike most of us, Chris had the luxury of being able to pick any field of study that interested him, dig up some books and papers, and teach himself a graduate-level understanding in what felt like a few days. It is hard to express quite how fast he could consume and internalise complex new information, and how relentlessly he went at it. To note that he got six A grades at A-level is too puerile a précis, but it is indicative.*
Again, I am not telling you this to make you feel stupid: what matters is what he chose to do with this gift. What he chose to do was built an ever-expanding palette of skills from which he could paint as he pleased. And what he chose to paint was a vision of a better, saner world.
This painting ranged across a huge expanse of topics and disciplines: nuclear engineering, political ideologies, constitutional law, military history, statistics, psephology, economics, security engineering, behavioural psychology, propaganda, intellectual propery law and more. His favourite brushes were Perl and a blog composed of prose so sharp and funny that George Bernard Shaw would not have been displeased by the comparison. I still wish I could write half as well as him.
What I want to communicate most is this: the disciplines he chose to study form a combined19th, 20th and 21st century curriculum of skills required by modern leaders, both leaders of political organisations and government bureaucracies. Chris’s life was the invention of a massively expanded, far more up to date version of the traditional Politics, Philosophy and Economics course that this country still uses to educate its elites.
Some of these disciplines are timeless, like the understanding of ideologies or economics. Some represent vital new issues that emerged in the 20th century, like nuclear energy and world-scale warfare. But mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.
This doesn’t mean Chris would have made a perfect leader: I used to argue with him a lot about how he weighed up the costs and benefits of different issues. But what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.
The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.
There is, of course, much more to say about Chris’s life. His blog, built on software that foresaw Posterous, is wonderful, hilarious and utterly readable, so you can learn more yourself. Martin Keegan’s obituary is touching and a much better portrait of how much fun it was to be friends with Chris. I hope to memorialise what he represents to me, if I can. But for now, I’ll sign off with a quote from a blog commentor:
“Chris was kind enough to take the time to reply to me, an internet nobody whom he didn’t know from a bar of soap, on a fairly complex statistical question once. He took a lot of time and effort in his response, and he made sure I understood it properly. It’s not often you find knowledgeable people willing to take their own time to educate an unknown person. We need more people like him, not less.”
* For US readers, this is like having a GPA of 4.0, but achieved across twice as many subjects as you actually need to take.
TheyWorkForYou has, until now, only covered things that have already happened, be that Commons main chamber debates since 1935, Public Bill committees back to 2000, or all debates in the modern Northern Ireland Assembly.
From today, we are taking the UK Parliament’s upcoming business calendar and feeding it into our database and search engine, which means some notable new features. Firstly, and most simply, you can browse what’s on today (or the next day Parliament is sitting), or 16th May. Secondly, you can easily search this data, to e.g. see if there will be something happening regarding Twickenham. And best of all, if you’re signed up for an email alert – see below for instructions – you’ll get an email about any matching future business along with the matching new Hansard data we already send. We currently send about 25,000 alerts a day, with over 65,000 email addresses signed up to over 111,000 alerts.
Mark originally wrote some code to scrape Parliament’s business papers, but this sadly proved too fragile, so we settled on Parliament’s calendar which covers most of the same information and more importantly has (mostly) machine-readable data. Duncan and I worked on this intermittently amidst our other activities, with Duncan concentrating on the importer and updating our search indexer (thanks as ever to Xapian) whilst I got on with adding and integrating the new data into the site.
I’ve also taken the opportunity to rejig the home page (and fix the long-standing bug with popular searches that meant it was nearly always Linda Gilroy MP!) to remove the confusingly dense amount of recent links, bring it more in line with the recently refreshed Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly home pages, and provide more information to users who might not have any idea what the site covers.
Signing up for an email alert: If you want to receive an email alert on a particular person (MP, Lord, MLA or MSP), visit their page on TheyWorkForYou and follow the “Email me updates” link. If you would like alerts for a particular word or phrase, or anything else, simply do a search for what you’re after, then follow the email alert or RSS links to the right of the results page.